maximus mischief off the derby trail

By Dick Jerardi

When unbeaten Maximus Mischief left the Parx stable area in December for the long van ride to Gulfstream Park, the colt took with him the hopes of trainer Butch Reid and wife Ginny as well as owners Chuck Zacney and Glenn Bennett, not to mention the Parx backstretch which had not seen a young horse of this quality since Smarty Jones fifteen years before.

There was justifiable talk of a place in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. Maximus Mischief had been so impressive in all his workouts and his three races, two at Parx and one in the Grade II Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct. Really, nobody knew just how good this colt might become.

Now, sadly, it is likely we will never know. The colt’s final workout before a scheduled start in the March 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream did not go well. It was obvious something was wrong. It turns out, according to Butch Reid, it was a soft tissue injury involving ligaments and tendons. The only solution to the problem, if there is one, is time and treatment.

Maximus Mischief will be headed to an Ocala, Fla. farm to recuperate. He won’t be in training for some time, if ever.

Reports out of Florida were great after Max first got there. His daily gallops were strong and true. His breezes prior to the Feb. 2 Holy Bull Stakes were not perfect, but gave no indication he would not win a race where he really looked like a cinch.

But Max did not look like himself that day, not before the race when he acted up on the way to paddock, was sweating in the post parade and was reluctant to enter the starting gate. And not during the race when he tracked the pacesetter, but did not cruise by with that smooth, powerful stride he had always shown. Passed by two longshots in the stretch, Max had to settle for third. It was, in every way, a shocking result.

The Fountain of Youth was going to show if the Holy Bull result was a fluke. Then, the workout happened and, just that fast, the Derby dream was over.

Is it possible the surface at Gulfstream Park, much harder than the surface at Parx, was the culprit? Was this massive, super fast young horse just too hard on himself? Did something happen in the Holy Bull that would only manifest itself during the pressure of a subsequent workout?

All good questions with no obvious answers.

Horse racing is this mysterious, wonderful, heartbreaking, exhilarating combination of the human experience.

We will never know for certain why the injuries happened, just that they did. What might have been is now what never will be. And that is so hard for an owner with a Derby prospect.

Zacney knows that better than most. He had the country’s best three-year-old in 2005. Afleet Alex dominated the Preakness and Belmont Stakes after finishing third in the Derby to giant longshots. This horse, Maximus Mischief, was going to win the Derby that Alex should have won.

“We had a lot of hopes and dreams tied to the horse,” Zacney said. “It’s the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in horse racing. Right now, I’m experiencing the lows unfortunately.”

And that is why horse racing celebrations are unlike any others. It is just so hard to get a really good horse and win a really big race. So when it happens, it is pure joy.

“This is tough because my son was so attached to this horse,” Zacney said.

Alex Zacney actually spotted the colt at the Timonium sale last May. His dad gives him great credit for the subsequent purchase.

“Unfortunately, he got a dose of reality too,” Zacney said.

Bennett had not owned a horse like Afleet Alex so this was his first foray into the big time.

“Ultimate highs, ultimate lows, but I’m not giving up on it, though,” Bennett said. “I’m getting back in.”

Bennett owns 26 horses at the moment.

“I told the guys I’d never have more than 10,” he said. “That was a lie. The worst part is once you get to this level, that’s all you want.”

When he got the news on Maximus, Bennett said it was a “stunned, numb kind of feeling, like how can it be. Wasn’t expecting it all.”

In a game where hope is the operative word, you always want to look forward, thinking you finally have the “one”. Well, Zacney and Bennett had the “one”. Maximus Mischief was no mirage. He really was that talented. That was never an issue. But you can never account for bad luck and injury. Now, they wait to see if the horse can recover and maybe race again. That is a longshot, but so was getting a horse like Maximus Mischief in the first place.

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