By Mike Farrell
The “Boys of Summer” will ultimately meet in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Del Mar on Nov. 6.
In the Classic, the handicap division runners will square off with the 3-year-olds as the playing field levels for the defining and concluding event of the season.
The road that several top contenders will follow clarified after the last two weekends.
Maxfield won the Stephen Foster and Max Player pulled the upset in the Suburban, the two Grade 2 stakes that were BC Classic “Win and You’re In” qualifiers for older runners. Both punched their tickets to the big show.
For Max Player, the Suburban last Saturday was the breakthrough moment as he defeated odds-on favorite and Dubai World Cup (G1) winner Mystic Guide by a hard-fought neck. Until that victory, Max Player had been a “hang around” horse who ran with the big boys but couldn’t seal the deal.
The Suburban ended Max Player’s six-race losing streak and was a dramatic improvement on his previous effort, a sixth-place finish in the Pimlico Special (G3).
After the trip to Baltimore, Max Player returned to Belmont Park where he thrived, according to Toby Sheets, the New York-based assistant to Steve Asmussen.
“He gradually improved, he loves it here,” Sheets said. “The way he ran shows how much he improved.”
Maybe it was the wet track that stymied Mystic Guide. Maybe he simply needed a race after an extended layoff. Either way, trainer Mike Stidham had no complaints.
“He came out of the race in good shape,” Stidham said. “There were a lot of factors involved. He was coming off a three-month layoff and it obviously was a demanding racetrack.”
Happy Saver came into the Suburban unbeaten in five starts and finished third behind the top two.
Trainer Todd Pletcher is looking at the Whitney (G1) on Aug. 7 as Happy Saver’s next engagement. That race is also the target for Maxfield.
Both the Whitney and the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) on Sept. 4 are the two BC Classic “WAYI” races for older horses at Saratoga.
Maxfield and Mystic Guide are both owned by Godolphin. With Maxfield headed to the Whitney, Mystic Guide could head west for the Pacific Classic (G1).
The two remaining Grade 1 East Coast stakes for 3-year-olds are also BC Classic “WAYI” contests: the Haskell at Monmouth Park on July 17 and the Travers at Saratoga on Aug 28.
Kentucky Derby (G1) runner-up Mandaloun will return to Monmouth for the Haskell, according to trainer Brad Cox. He won the Pegasus there as a prep in his first start since the Derby.
The Haskell lineup at the moment also includes Hot Rod Charlie, third in the Derby and second in the Belmont Stakes (G1) and Preakness (G1) winner Rombauer.
Essential Quality, the Belmont winner and other leading 3-year-old in the Cox barn, will shoot for the Travers.
The Triple Crown consumes the first half of the year; the Classic dominates the second. While it is a long-and-winding road to Del Mar in November, the journey has begun. Enjoy the trip!
Belmont offers a pair of Grade 1 grass stakes for 3-year-olds on Saturday: the Belmont Derby Invitational and the Belmont Oaks Invitational. The meet concludes Sunday with Saratoga kicking off on July 15.
Other races of note this week include the Indiana Derby (G3) on Wednesday and the Delaware Handicap (G2) on Saturday.
Many of the old familiar faces returned to Goshen, New York for one of harness racing’s great traditions, the installation of the newest members of the Hall of Fame on Sunday night.
The pandemic wiped out last year’s event. In another sign we are returning to normal, the induction and banquet once again took place on the lawn in front of the Harness Racing Museum.
For a change, the weather was pleasant. Hall of Fame night under the tent is often stiflingly hot, or miserably soggy with drenching rain. The return to Goshen this time was marked by a delightful evening, and four worthy inductees.
Tim Tetrick, not yet 40, is on an amazing trajectory to obliterate the wins, earnings and stakes-victory records for a harness driver. A humble man from the Midwest, Tetrick was too choked with emotion to read his prepared remarks.
“I love this, it’s all I wanted to do with my life,” Tetrick said.
The induction was long-overdue for Bill Popfinger, a major figure from an earlier era who more than held his own on the Grand Circuit against Stanley Dancer, Del Miller, Joe O’Brien and Billy Haughton.
Popfinger suffered several ballot near misses in the 1980s and then faded from consideration. A final outpouring of support got him over the top and into The Hall.
“Sometimes the good things take a little longer,” said Popfinger who still trains a string of horses at age 84.
Tom Charters started in harness racing as a groom and still considers himself a caretaker of the sport. He recently retired as president of the Hambletonian Society where he was instrumental in launching the Breeders Crown series.
Last, but not least, was Jeff Gural, the savior of The Meadowlands Racetrack and a leading crusader in the fight to chase cheaters and horse-druggers out of racing.
Gural poignantly recalled his early love affair with the sport as a fan. The reason he became addicted to it was “it was fun.”
That’s a lesson we can all take to heart. Whether we are mired in a losing streak or depressed by the negative headlines swirling around racing, don’t lose sight of the reasons the sport endures. It’s exciting, and more importantly, it’s fun.
Mike Farrell has worked in thoroughbred and harness racing for much of his career in journalism. Mike is a turf writer, harness writer, and handicapper, covering and analyzing races at dozens of racetracks around the country. Based on the East Coast, Mike has covered the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup for a number of publications, including Daily Racing Form, as well as The Associated Press. He spends time at Gulfstream Park taking in the races, and also hits the harness racing circuit in the Northeast region. He’s been a fixture at The Hambletonian and the Haskell Invitational for longer than he’d like to remember.