There are only a few days remaining in Maxfield’s career as a racehorse and, as such, there is a decidedly bittersweet tone around trainer Brendan Walsh’s barn as the son of Street Sense goes through his pre-race preparations for the final time.
His last workout was Nov. 19. He’ll have his concluding morning gallop in the coming days and, at approximately 5:56 p.m. ET on Nov. 26, the dark bay colt will stand in the Churchill Downs starting gate and ready himself for what his connections hope will be a walk-off homerun of an ending to his time of the track, which has already provided his conditioner with a milestone moment.
Saying goodbye to the arguably the best horse he has ever trained will hit Walsh square in the feels Friday evening, but the fact his first career Grade 1 winner gets to end his racing days on his terms counts as a victory regardless the outcome when faces seven challengers in the $750,000 Clark Stakes (G1). After twice having his career nearly derailed due to injury, Maxfield will head into his final start with the weight of expectations that has come with him finally having a chance to showcase his full potential.
While the 1 1/8-miles Clark will go down as just the 11th start for Godolphin’s homebred Maxfield, the soon-to-be Darley America stallion has endured quite the journey in getting himself to this point. Two starts into his career, he stamped himself as the likely favorite for the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) when he scored a 5 ½-length victory in that year’s Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland but had to miss the World Championships when he came up with a minor leg issue the week of the race.
When he resurfaced the following May, Maxfield appeared to put himself on target for the delayed 2020 Kentucky Derby (G1) with a one-length victory in the Matt Winn Stakes (G3) only to be forced to the sidelines once more when he was found to have a non-displaced condylar fracture in his right front cannon bone following a workout last June. Though the commercial market would have supported an unbeaten Grade 1-winning son of a top stallion despite his light resume, the desire to give a healthy Maxfield a full racing season prompted the Godolphin team to keep him in training for this his 4-year-old season.
Though there have been peaks and valleys with Maxfield’s 2021 campaign, there hasn’t been a whole lot in the way of regrets or circumstantial ‘what ifs’. He’s never been worse than third in his career and his three wins from six starts this year include triumphs in the Mineshaft (G3), Alysheba (G2) and Stephen Foster Stakes (G2). While he fell short in the Santa Anita Handicap (G1), Whitney (G1) and Woodward Stakes (G1), Maxfield has proven the precocity he flaunted could indeed progress into form that stands amongst the best in the handicap ranks.
“He’s just been a great horse from Day 1. He’s a favorite really because he’s such a good character and everything,” Walsh said of his protégé. “He’s never run a bad race. We’ve had our low points with the injuries, but he came back, and I think he’s had a great career. He’s been a pleasure to train, a pleasure to have in the barn.
“You can’t have the consistency he’s had without being a very good horse. There is no such thing as a bad graded stakes when you go into that company, and it takes a very good horse to show up every time and to run against these horses and be competitive. Anytime he hasn’t won, he’s been beaten by some very good horses on the day. I think he’s had a career we can be proud of.”
In elevating themselves, good horses often pull up those around them as well – something Walsh can now testify to firsthand. Since Maxfield gave the native of Ireland his first top-level win two years ago, Walsh’s barn as a whole has taken a jump in quality with this season specifically going down as far and away his best to date.
With more than $7 million in earnings this year through Nov. 22, Walsh has nearly doubled his previous best single season mark and his 72 wins to date represent another career tops. Not only is his stable establishing itself among the best in North America, but Walsh’s stock has also earned global accolades as his veteran sprinter Extravagant Kid annexed the $1 million Al Quoz Sprint (G1) at Meydan Racecourse on Dubai World Cup (G1) undercard on March 27 and went on to run third in the King’s Stand Stakes (G1) at Royal Ascot.
“You get a high-profile horse like (Maxfield) and it does nothing but good for your career because they put you out there,” Walsh said. “And when people see that you can compete at the top level, there is a follow-on effect from it I think – better clients, better horses. Of course, we all need some luck along the way to try and keep these horses healthy and all that. But it’s been a great year so far and hopefully we can cap it this weekend with Max.”
If Maxfield can add to that success with another Grade 1 triumph on Friday, he will take down a top group of adversaries in the process.
Chief among his competition will be Winchell Thoroughbreds’ graded stakes winning 3-year-old Midnight Bourbon, who has been knocking on the door of a top-level breakthrough. The son of Tiznow enters the Clark following back-to-back runner-up finishes in the $1.25 million Travers Stakes (G1) and $1 million Pennsylvania Derby (G1) as was in contention in the stretch of the Haskell Stakes (G1) in July before clipping heels with Hot Rod Charlie and tumbling to his knees while unseating jockey Paco Lopez.
Trained by Steve Asmussen, Midnight Bourbon also ran second in the Preakness Stakes (G1) and figures to be the controlling early speed in the Clark.
Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher will have a two-pronged attack for Friday’s test with Grade 1 winner Happy Saver and graded stakes victor Dr Post each seeking to earn the hardware. Happy Saver, who captured the 2020 Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1), was most recently second in this year’s edition of the race while Dr Post comes in off a third-place finish in the Woodward Stakes where he was a length behind Maxfield for place money.
“It’s not going to be an easy feat on Friday,” Walsh said of Maxfield, who will break from the outside post and is unbeaten in four starts at Churchill Downs. “There are some good horses in there. But he has been very good at Churchill. He broke his maiden there, he won first time out there.
“There has been a lot of water under the bridge since then but… he got to come back and have a fantastic career after.”