By Dick Jerardi
Grade I wins, Eclipse Awards, runaway races. Parx horses have been on a four-month run of out-of-town stakes success that was unprecedented in the history of the racetrack. It was almost as if the results were preordained.
On paper, it looked like that streak would continue when unbeaten Maximus Mischief, stabled in Barn 4 at Parx during the summer and fall, was set to make his three-year-old debut in the Feb. 2 Grade II Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park. After all, each of Maximus Mischief’s three Beyer speed figures was better than any figure his eight rivals had earned in 35 combined races.
Maximus Mischief had won his races with ease. Two were against overmatched rivals at Parx. One was in the Grade II Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct against a field that included third-place Tax, who would win the Grade III Withers Stakes at Aqueduct 45 minutes prior to the Holy Bull, and fourth-place Bourbon War who won a Jan. 18 allowance race at Gulfstream.
It all appeared so perfect; too perfect it turned out.
Maximus Mischief got his usual great position in the Holy Bull, tracking the early leader from a few lengths behind on the run down the backstretch. When jockey Jose Ortiz, who replaced Parx champion rider Frankie Pennington for the race, gave the signal, the assumption was that Max would cruise on by and would quickly move on to the next hurdle on the way to the Kentucky Derby.
Except, Ortiz gave the signal and Max was inching up to the leader, not rolling right by. When Maximus Mischief finally got by Epic Dreamer in the final 100 yards, there were two fresh challengers. Harvey Wallbanger, a 29-1 shot, passed Max on the inside and then, just before the wire, 128-1 Everfast, passed him on the outside. The winner was one length ahead of Everfast who finished a neck in front of Maximus Mischief.
Maximus Mischief had run far from his great two-year-old form and the result left a lot more questions than answers.
“Jose said he had to use him a little more than he thought he would which I agreed with,” trainer Butch Reid said.
Maximus Mischief’s three Gulfstream workouts prior to the race did not go exactly as planned. He switched leads several times in the stretch of the first work. He went fast early and slow late in his second work. His third work had to be postponed for two days because of weather and came five days before the race instead of the planned seven.
So was the Holy Bull an aberration? Or is something else going on? Only time will tell.
The time of the Holy Bull, a very slow 1:43.69 for the mile and a sixteenth, told one story.
Maximus Mischief’s next race will tell the next part of the story.
The original plan was to wait for the March 30 Florida Derby as a final prep for the Kentucky Derby. That could change, with the March 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes now under consideration.
“He was walking sound after the race,” Reid said. “He came back blowing a little harder after the race, but we just got done scoping him and he scoped clean. His airway looks great so…”
In his early races at Parx, Max had been very excitable on the way to paddock and in the paddock. He was perfectly fine, however, prior to the Remsen.
He was not fine before the Holy Bull, as he reverted back to the bad habits of rearing up and sweating profusely.
“He looked unsettled coming into the paddock,” Reid said. “He had a little flank sweat, a little shoulder sweat going to the gate. I’m not sure what it was, but something kind of put him off his game a little bit today. Fortunately, we still have a good, strong, sound horse and we’ll give him a little bit of a mulligan for today and go on about our business… He hasn’t dropped any in my eyes.”
That pre-race nervousness obviously has to be addressed. Unsettled horses rarely run to their true ability.
“Those are things we are going to have to work on in the next few days to see if we can discover what was really on his mind,” Reid said. “Soundness-wise, health-wise, all that kind of stuff, he looks fantastic.”