Photo: Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
Favored Silver Max returned from nearly seven months on the sidelines with style as he led from the start to collect the 10th stakes triumph of his career in a 1 1/2-length victory under jockey Robby Albarado in Saturday's 25th running of the $224,800 Firecracker (GII) for 3-year-olds and up at one mile on the turf at Churchill Downs.
The 5-year-old son of Badge of Silver provided trainer Dale Romans with a fourth victory in the Firecracker as he held off late runs by Nikki's Sandcastle and his Romans-trained stablemate Guys Reward, who finished a nose apart in second and third, respectively. Villandry closed well for fourth and finished a neck behind Guys Reward in the tight three-way battle for the runner-up spot.
"It was unbelievable," Romans said. "This is special and he's a special horse."
Mark Bacon and Dana Wells' Silver Max, running for the first time since a fourth-place finish behind two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan in November's $2 million Breeders' Cup Mile (Grade I) at Santa Anita, collected his first stakes win at Churchill Downs since a victory as a 3-year-old in the American Turf (GII) and paid $4.60, $4 and $2.80 as the 6-5 favorite.
"I was more nervous before this race than before any other just to see how he came back and, boy, he delivered," Bacon said.
Nikki's Sandcastle, who rallied from fourth under Leandro Goncalves to grab the runner-up spot, returned $5.80 and $3.40. Guys Reward, who won the 2012 Firecracker for Romans, paid $4 to show for his third-place run under Jesus Castanon.
Free World, Valentino Beauty, Regally Ready and Joha finished behind fourth-place finisher Villandry.
Silver Max opened a clear lead breaking from post five and took the field of eight older horses through fractions of :23.65, :46.83, 1:09.98 and 1:21.74 without much pressure. He drifted out a bit entering the stretch but continued on doggedly to hold off his rivals and clock the mile on firm turf in 1:34.21.
"That's very fast under today's conditions," Albarado said. "He was cruising along there pretty good and had his ears forward the whole way so I knew he was content with his cruising mode. He's got such a high cruising speed and that's his asset."
Silver Max was the only horse to defeat Wise Dan in 2013 and the Firecracker win was his first since that victory in the Shadwell Turf Mile (GI) at Keeneland, which was moved from turf to the synthetic Polytrack course at the Lexington, Ky. track. The Firecracker win lifted Silver Max's career record to 12-5-1 in 24 races and the $135,195 winner's share of the Firecracker purse boosted his career earnings to $1,913,598.
"Robby said he was really impressed with the way he did it and the way he galloped out so we're looking forward to the future," Bacon said. "It was good to get the first one under the belt."
DALE ROMANS, trainer of SILVER MAX (winner) and GUYS REWARD (third): "It was unbelievable. It was his first race back and when that horse (Regally Ready) ran up to him on turn I was thinking that maybe if I didn't have him tight enough that the horse might get by him. But he's just class and with these class athletes you can't mess 'em up; I just need to stay out of his way and he'll get the job done for me.
"This win means a lot because these are good people. Mark (Bacon) and I have been good friends since high school and it's a lot of fun to win for them. I told Mark that we were friends before we bought the horse for $20,000 and now we're really good friends. This is special and he's a special horse.
"And Guys Reward shows up every time. It's funny, I bought both those horses at yearlings sales for $20,000 and they just keep paying us back. Nice horses."
ROBBY ALBARADO, jockey of SILVER MAX (winner): "Obviously he did his patented bust-away-from-there and went to the front. He was cruising along there pretty good and had his ears forward the whole way so I knew he was content with his cruising mode. He's got such a high cruising speed and that's his asset. He's going so fast that they burn themselves up trying to get to them. By the eighth pole he's still three or four in front. He's a nice horse.
"I made a conscious effort leaving there (to be in front) and was determined to get in front at all costs. I wasn't going to overdo it and blister in :22 and :45, but speed is his asset and I used it today and if he held on, he held on. He was off quite a while and that's a credit to Dale being off seven months and running a big race in 1:34.21. That's very fast under today's conditions."
MARK BACON, co-owner of SILVER MAX (winner): "I was more nervous before this race than before any other just to see how he came back and, boy, he delivered. Dale and his team did absolute right thing with him. It was great to give him some time off. Robby said he was really impressed with the way he did it and the way he galloped out so we're looking forward to the future. It was good to get the first one under the belt."
DAVID KASSEN, trainer of NIKKI'S SANDCASTLE (runner-up): "He always runs a good one. I thought there would be more pace - he (Silver Max) made an easy lead. I thought the two (Free World) had to go with him. I set up for the winner."
Q: Nikki's Sandcastle always shows up and runs well ... "He's hickory - he ran good."
LEANDRO GONCALVES, jockey on NIKKI'S SANDCASTLE (runner-up): "I thought there would be more pace. Before the race I saw a lot of speed and I thought Free World would put pressure on Silver Max. The plan was to stay behind them and try to survive at the end, but it didn't work out that way. He still ran a great race. To me, I've ridden him four times and this is the best race he's ever run for me."
JESUS CASTANON, jockey on GUYS REWARD (third): "He had a good break and settled to run his own race. He gave me a pretty good run late."
Q: It looked like there would be a little more pace in the race, but your stablemate Silver Max got out there all alone ... "That was whole key - coming into this race it looked there was a lot of speed and it was going to set-up good (for Guys Reward), but nobody went out there with the five (Silver Max) and that changed the whole thing."
JULIEN LEPAROUX, jockey on VILLANDRY (fourth):
Q : It seem before the race that you'd have a little more pace to run at, but the winner got out there by himself ... "That's part of racing, I guess. My horse ran good. He put me in a good spot right away and finished up strong. They all finished in the race. But he ran good - that was a good race for him."