The first edition of the Grade 1, $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup to be run at Saratoga Race Course saw George E. Hall and Sport BLX Thoroughbreds’ Max Player notch a second straight graded stakes victory. The son of Honor Code proved his win in the Grade 2 Suburban Stakes was no fluke when he collared pacesetting favorite Forza Di Oro approaching mid-stretch and drew away in the final furlong to win the prestigious 1 ¼-mile test on Sept. 4.
In capturing the 103rd Jockey Club Gold Cup, a “Win And You’re In” event, Max Player punched his ticket for the Grade 1, $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 6 at Del Mar. He arrived off a sharp triumph over Group 1 Dubai World Cup winner Mystic Guide in the Suburban on July 3 at Belmont Park – an effort that snapped a six-race losing streak for the 4-year-old dark bay colt.
“It was beautiful,” said Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. “Max, in the Suburban, ran that race under different circumstances on an off track. For him to do this on a fast track in the Jockey Club Gold Cup here at Saratoga, it is very satisfying. This is who he is, and I thought it was a dominating win.”
Breaking from post 2, Max Player was hustled coming out of the gate by jockey Ricardo Santana, Jr., and settled 1 ½ lengths back and to the outside of Forza Di Oro into the first turn through an opening quarter-mile in :24.05 over the fast main track, with defending winner, Happy Saver, in third along the rail.
Down the backstretch, Max Player advanced just one length off Forza Di Oro through a half in :48.70 as positions remained unchanged. Around the far turn through three quarters in 1:13.14, Junior Alvarado started to get busy aboard Forza Di Oro as Max Player loomed large to his outside.
Santana, Jr. began asking his charge as the field reached the top of the stretch and took slight command past the three-sixteenths pole. In the final eighth of a mile, Max Player found another gear under Santana, Jr.’s right-handed encouragement and drew off to win by four lengths, stopping the clock in 2:02.49.
Max Player provided Asmussen, who became North American racing’s all-time winningest conditioner in August, with his fourth Jockey Club Gold Cup coup. The win was also a fifth stakes conquest of the meet for Asmussen, and third at Grade 1 level, following wins by Jackie’s Warrior in the H. Allen Jerkens Memorial and Yaupon in the Forego.
“It’s been a dream meet. It really has,” Asmussen said. “With achieving the [all-time trainer win] record here. With the fans coming back. With how it felt. At Saratoga – not only do you have fans – you have educated fans. They’re aware of racing. To set the record here and this is the third Grade 1 win of the meet. It’s been a dream meet and it will be beautiful to reflect on, but we have two Grade 1s left before we’re there.”
Asmussen will saddle Echo Zulu in the Sept. 5 Grade 1 Spinaway and Gunite in Monday’s Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes.
Max Player, who was stabled at Saratoga and breezed three times at the Spa, has displayed a turnaround in form after travelling for unplaced efforts in the Group 1 Saudi Cup in February and the Grade 3 Pimlico Special in May.
“He likes to be where he’s going to run,” Asmussen said. “Physically, he looks great. He’s matured wonderfully. He’s made a beautiful older horse, getting strong and running his best races at the right time.”
With the Breeders’ Cup Classic now the ultimate goal, Asmussen said Max Player would likely get acclimated to the surface at Del Mar well in advance.
“I will speak with Mr. Hall, but I think the right thing to do is to go out there early and wait for the Classic,” Asmussen said.
Santana, Jr. earned his third graded stakes victory of the meet, all at Grade 1 level.
“I was happy with him,” said Santana, Jr. “Today, he broke good, so I was really happy with it. The trainer is doing all the work.”
The victory was a third overall graded stakes win for Max Player, who won the Grade 3 Withers in February 2020 at Aqueduct ahead of third-place finishes in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes and Grade 1 Runhappy Travers last year.
Returning $9.60 for a $2 win bet, Max Player banked $535,000 in victory, bringing his lifetime earnings to millionaire status with $1,252,500 through a 11-4-1-2 record.
Happy Saver closed gamely under jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. to finish second for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher.
“I thought he ran very well. We got bottled up in behind horses in a pace-less race,” Pletcher said. “He ran on well, but we’d benefit from a more truly run race. I’m proud of his effort.”
Hall of Famer Bill Mott, trainer of third-place finisher Forza Di Oro, offered no excuses and said the nine-furlong Grade 1, $500,000 Woodward on Oct. 2 at Belmont Park is possible.
“I’m disappointed that he didn’t get the 10 furlongs. I just didn’t think he had any excuse,” Mott said. “We’ve got to see. There’s another race; the Woodward could be a possibility, I suppose. But it’s a little early to commit to anything.”
Max Player gave his third-crop stallion a second Grade 1-winning progeny this meet after siring Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks winner Maracuja, who also was piloted by Santana, Jr.
Bred in Kentucky by K & G Stables, Max Player is out of the Not For Love mare Fools in Love, making him a half-brother to Seahenge – a Group 2 winner on turf in Ireland.