Max Player made the 103rd running of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, held for the first time in history at Saratoga Race Course, a memorable one for the fans in attendance.
In an impressive performance, Max Player, with jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. riding, stalked race favorite Forza Di Oro, with Junior Alvarado riding, around the track, then easily moved into the lead coming around the final turn, took command in the stretch, and ran off to a four-length win in the $1 million race.
“I was happy with him,” said Santana, Jr. “Today, he broke good, so I was really happy with it. The trainer is doing all the work.”
Trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, the son of Honor Code-Fools in Love, by Not for Love proved to his detractors that his recent win in the Suburban Stakes (G2) at Belmont on July 13, 2021 was no fluke and that he will be a horse to be reckoned with the rest of the race season.
His next target – since the Jockey Club Gold Cup is a “Win and Your In” race for automatic entry into the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, which will be held Nov. 4, 2021 at Del Mar, Max Player gave notice that he is a horse to be seriously considered as a top contender in that race.
“It was beautiful,” said Asmussen. “Max, in the Suburban, ran that race under different circumstances on an off track. For him to do this on a fast track in the Jockey Club Gold Cup here at Saratoga, it is very satisfying. This is who he is, and I thought it was a dominating win.”
With the win, 4-year-old Max Player, who is owned by George Hall and SportBLX Thoroughbreds Corp., now has 4 wins, 1 second, 2 thirds and $1,252,500 in earnings in 11 career starts.
Coming into the race, some questioned whether Max Player was up to the task to run in this race since he’s had an up-and-down career all his life. Originally trained by Linda Rice, he had been transferred to the barn of Asmussen in 2020 after Rice had run into some legal issues.
At first, Asmussen had some trouble figuring out his horse, as Max Player finished fifth in both the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness Stakes (G1). An 11th in the Saudi Cup (G1) in Feb. 2021, and a sixth in the Pimlico Special in May 2021 followed. But then Asmussen decided to change tactics. In all those previous races, Max Player had tried to come from behind. So, Asmussen decided to change things up, and have Max Player go for the lead early on instead and see what happens.
Well, what happened is that he won his next race, the Suburban Stakes (G2) at Belmont, showing a lot of grit and determination. In that race, he broke sharply, ran second or third for most of the race, then made his move in the stretch to score a win by a neck.
However, a question remained. The race had been held on a muddy track, and some wondered if that was the reason Max Player won – he liked the slop.
Well, for the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Saratoga, that questioned would be answered, as it was a beautiful, sunny day on Sept. 4, 2021, and the track was rated fast.
Max Player would break from gate 2 with Santana riding. He was the third choice in the race at 3.8-1 odds.
Also in the six-horse field was Forza Di Oro, who was coming into the race after winning his previous three outings – two at the end of 2020, an allowance race at Belmont in October, and the Discovery Stakes (G3) last November at Aqueduct, and a $100,000 Optional Claiming race earlier in the 2021 Saratoga meet in July.
Trained by Bill Mott, and with his regular rider Alvarado up, Forza Di Oro would break from gate 1 and was the 1.1-1 race favorite.
Another horse that was being watch closely was Happy Saver. Ridden by Irad Ortiz, Jr., Happy Saver was the defending Jockey Club Gold Cup champion. He was coming into the race off a third-place finish in the Suburban Stakes, the first loss of his career. Prior to that, he had won a $100,000 Optional Claiming race at Belmont in May to extend his career record, at that time, to 5-0.
Trained by newly enshrined Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, Happy Saver would break from gate 4 as the 2.1-1 betting choice.
Before the break, Forza Di Oro was acting up in the gate, but when they swung open, he went straight to the lead under Alvarado. Max Player also broke hard and settled into the three-path, and under Santana Jr.’s guidance, settled just off the right hip of Forza Di Oro. Happy Saver was kept in hand by Ortiz Jr. and settled along the rail in mid-pack around the first turn and down the backstretch.
Forza Di Oro held onto the lead while setting somewhat slow, but comfortable, fractions of 24.05, 48.70, around the first turn and then down the backstretch.
As the horses rounded the final turn, Santana Jr. gave Max Player his cue, and his horse responded and began to creep on the race leader. Meanwhile, as the horses were coming out of the turn, Happy Saver, who had seemed trapped on the rail, pushed his way out into the two-path under Ortiz Jr.’s guidance and began moving toward the race leaders.
As they were coming out of the turn, Max Player made his move and cruised by Forza Di Oro to take the lead. With a couple taps of a right-handed whip by Santana, Max Player then shook clear of Forza Di Oro and under strong urging, started to draw away into an uncontested lead. He crossed the wire for the win by four-lengths, stopping the clock in the 1-1/4-mile race in 2:02.49.
“He likes to be where he’s going to run,” Asmussen said of Max Player. “Physically, he looks great. He’s matured wonderfully. He’s made a beautiful older horse, getting strong and running his best races at the right time.”
Behind Max Player, Forza Di Oro and Happy Saver battled for second. With urging from Ortiz Jr., Happy Saver made a final push and took second by a half-length, while a tiring Forza Di Oro fell to third.
Rounding out the field was Night Ops in fourth, followed by Chess Chief fifth, and Forewarned sixth.
To say Asmussen is on a roll would be an understatement. With the win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Asmussen not only scored his fourth Jockey Club Gold Cup victory, he also earned his fifth stakes win in the 2021 Saratoga meet.
In addition, earlier in the Saratoga meet, Asmussen, who is in the 35th-year of his career, won his 9,446 race to become the all-time North American leading trainer in wins when Stellar Tap won the fifth race at Saratoga on Aug. 7. He broke the record set by Dale Baird’s of 9,445, which he earned in his 47-year career.
As to the plans for Max Player in preparing for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Asmussen said, “I will speak with Mr. Hall, but I think the right thing to do is to go out there early and wait for the Classic.”
* On Feb. 19, 2021, it was announced that the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) and the Flower Bowl (G1T) were being moved to Saratoga, while the Woodward Stakes (G1) and the Fasig-Tipton Waya Stakes (G3) were being moved from Saratoga to the fall Belmont meet.
According to a BloodHorse.com article: “The Jockey Club Gold Cup and Flower Bowl, which are Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” races, are significant grade 1 events that will now anchor closing weekend of the 2021 Saratoga meet, said NYRA spokesperson, Pat McKenna. “Moving these races up in the calendar, and transitioning the Woodward back to its traditional home at Belmont Park, recognizes their importance to the schedule of world class horses pointing toward the Breeders’ Cup in early November. The addition of these races to the Saratoga stakes program should make for a thrilling final weekend of racing at the Spa.”
* The Jockey Club Gold Cup has seen some of the greatest Thoroughbreds find the winner’s circle. As noted by Patrick Reed in his “2021 Jockey Club Gold Cup Quick Sheet: Get to Know the Horses” on the America’s Best Racing website on Sept.1, 2021, “Through the years, the Jockey Club Gold Cup has been very significant in determining year-end championships and Horse of the Year honors, and it’s been won by a roll call of legends, including Man o’ War, Twenty Grand, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Citation, Hill Prince, Nashua (twice), Sword Dancer, Kelso (five times), Buckpasser, Damascus, Arts and Letters, Shuvee (twice), Forego, Exceller, Affirmed, John Henry, Slew o’ Gold (twice), Easy Goer, Cigar, Skip Away (twice), Mineshaft, Funny Cide, and Curlin (twice).”