SARATOGA SPRINGS — Max Player finally got everything lined up on Saturday.
Just over a year ago, he finished a well-beaten third in the Travers at Saratoga Race Course, then ran in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in the fall of an awkward pandemic-disrupted season.
Trainer Steve Asmussen sent him to Saudi Arabia in February to chase a $20 million purse, and Max Player ran poorly. He finally got back to the winner’s circle at Belmont Park in the Suburban in July, but Asmussen still had questions.
They were all answered in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup, run at Saratoga for the first time ever, when Max Player and jockey Ricardo Santana blasted away from the field to win by four lengths over Happy Saver in front of a paid admission crowd of 30,266.
Max Player had already clinched a free ride to the Breeders’ Cup Classic by winning the Suburban, so the win on Saturday served only to give Asmussen the extra confidence he was looking for on the way to Del Mar for the BC Classic on Nov. 6.
“His Suburban was so much better than his four previous races for us, but it was on an off track, at Belmont on an odd configuration,” Asmussen said. “To do it here on a more traditional mile and a quarter on a fast racetrack, it more than validates his Suburban.”
Forza Di Oro, who came in on a three-race winning streak that included a strong allowance win at Saratoga on July 21, controlled the early pace as he even-money betting favorite.
Max Player stuck with him a half-length behind, and Happy Saver, who won the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont last year, stayed firmly in third on the rail as Forza Di Oro got through the half-mile in 48.70 and three-quarters in 1:13.14.
Max Player made his move on the turn and smoothly cruised to the front to take over at the eighth pole and roll home, as Happy Saver couldn’t keep up but was able to overtake Forza Di Oro for second.
“It took some riding from Ricardo today in the first three or four jumps, but once he got him going, 50 yards from the gate, you get your chance,” Asmussen said. “I was glad to see that.”
“I thought he ran very well,” trainer Todd Pletcher said of Happy Saver. “We got bottled up in behind horses in a pace-less race. He ran on well, but we’d benefit from a more truly run race. I’m proud of his effort.”
“I’m disappointed that he didn’t get the 10 furlongs,” trainer Bill Mott said of Forza Di Oro.
Max Player ran for trainer Linda Rice in the Travers last year, then was transferred to Asmussen.
He said he liked his chances in the Derby, but couldn’t work out a favorable trip while still finishing fifth.
They kicked off the 2021 season by running in the Saudi Cup, but Max Player finished 24 lengths behind Mishriff.
“He had completely lost focus over there, night racing, get on a trailer … it was too much for him to run his race, where he was physically,” Asmussen said.
Max Player was given some time off, then had a dull effort in finishing sixth in the Pimlico Special. The Suburban victory was encouraging, if not fully convincing.
“Max, in the Suburban, ran that race with the circumstances of an off track,” Asmussen said. “For him to do this, on a fast track, in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, here at Saratoga, is very satisfying. But this is who he is. I thought it was a dominating win.
“I think we’ve learned that about him, that he likes to be where he’s going to run. I think that he physically looks great, he’s matured wonderfully, he’s made a beautiful older horse getting strong and running his best races at the right time.”
Asmussen still has two more Grade I’s to pursue, with Echo Zulu, an impressive debut winner on opening day, in the Spinaway on Sunday and Gunite in the Hopeful on Monday.
No matter what happens, he has already broken the all-time North American record for career wins, and did so with a win at this meet, and has three Grade I victories that include Jackie’s Warrior in the Allen Jerkens and Yaupon in the Forego, both on Travers Day last weekend.
“It’s been a dream meet, it really has,” Asmussen said. “Achieving the record here, with the fans coming back and just how it’s felt … here at Saratoga, you not only have fans, but you have educated fans. It’s our third Grade I of the meet, it’s been a dream meet that will be beautiful to reflect on, but we have two more Grade I’s left.”
Saratoga Race Course got in trainer Bill Mott’s way for a moment.
Jockey Julien Leparoux made sure nothing got in War Like Goddess’ way.
He picked his spot at the quarter pole to get her off the inside for clear running room in the middle of the stretch, and War Like Goddess won the Grade I Flower Bowl by 2 1/4 lengths and clinch a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf.
Mott missed the key moment from his seat in the clubhouse, but not his filly’s dominating closing kick.
“When they were coming out of the turn, I was watching the race and the pillar from the grandstand was in the way, so I didn’t know if she was still on the inside or the outside,” he said. “Then by the time she came, I could see that she made her way to the outside and was clear.
“She was tucked in most of the way. He tipped her out and got running room. She’s won on the inside before. If you can get a clear run, that’s all you need.”
War Like Goddess, who may train up the Breeders’ Cup the first weekend in November at Del Mar, has won four straight, all graded stakes, including the Glens Falls earlier in the meet.
“She’s a classy filly,” Leparoux said. “You can do whatever you want, and she’ll still give you that punch in the end. Bill Mott knows how to get them to these Grade I’s. They took their time with her, and it has paid off.”
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