SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – George Hall and SportBLX Thoroughbreds’ Max Player, whose two-race win streak concluded when third in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes in June, has the chance to return to his winning ways in Saturday’s Grade 1, $1 million Runhappy Travers at Saratoga.
The 151st running of the 1 ¼-mile Mid-Summer Derby will mark just the fifth career start for Max Player, a 3 ¼-length winner of the Grade 3, 1 1/8-mile Withers in his 3-year-old debut on February 1 at Aqueduct.
Trained by Linda Rice, Max Player didn’t run back until the Belmont, shortened to 1 1/8 miles in leading off the revamped Triple Crown lineup. The Travers offers 100-40-20-10 qualifying points to the top four finishers for the next leg, the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby on September 5.
“I knew from February to June, based on the way he was training, that he was going to take a big step forward. Obviously he needed to,” Rice said at Wednesday’s post-position draw. “This time around, I don’t know that we’re going to see the same progression we did from February to June, but if he takes baby steps that would be good [to] get us to September.”
Max Player will be the second career Travers starter for Rice, the only woman to win a training title at Saratoga. The 2009 meet champion was fourth in the 2014 Travers with Kid Cruz.
Rice opted to keep most of her string downstate this summer at Belmont, where Max Player has done the bulk of his training. He arrived in Saratoga Wednesday afternoon and went to the track Thursday and Friday.
“He’s trained fine. I’ve been training at Belmont, not at Saratoga, which is a little unusual,” Rice said. “Coming into the Belmont he was off a 5 ½-month break, so I trained him pretty aggressively. Coming into this race, I backed off him a little bit, [with] a little bit more maintenance breezes. We weren’t quite as aggressive with him, but I think he’s ready.”
Joel Rosario, aboard for the first time in the Belmont, rides back from post 4 in a field of eight led by even-money program favorite Tiz the Law, the 3 ¾-length winner of the Belmont considered the top 3-year-old in training.
“I’m OK with post 4. I’d rather try to save a little ground in the first turn, on both turns, and not get caught too far outside,” Rice said. “Joel, this will be the second time that he’s ridden the horse. It was a learning curve last time. He watched his previous races, he saw that the horse doesn’t run into kickback very well, so I think based on the learning curve he was a little too far back [in the Belmont], had a little too much to do. I’d like to think that Joel will work a little more aggressively to keep him closer.”
The late-running Max Player will be stretching out to 10 furlongs for the first time. He has never been worse than third in any of his four starts, winning a one-mile maiden special weight last December at Parx in his juvenile finale, and Rice is hoping to see an honest pace for her closer.
“Racing’s funny,” Rice said. “Sometimes when they run shorter distances they go faster early and you have a better chance to close with a horse like him that has a strong closing kick, so on occasion it works against you.”
NYRA Press Release
Photo: Max Player winning the 2020 Withers at Belmont. Credit: Coglianese Photos/Susie Raisher