What we learned: Max Player won Suburban with quality effort

What we learned: Max Player won Suburban with quality effort
Photo: Sue Kawczynski/Eclipse Sportswire

Although most handicappers saw the Suburban Stakes (G2) at Belmont as a rematch between Mystic Guide and Happy Saver, it turns out the 11-1 Max Player won in a mild upset under the familiar team of Ricardo Santana Jr. and Steve Asmussen. With the Suburban, Max Player owns three wins and two graded-stakes victories in 10 starts.

Click here for Belmont Park entries and results.

Before dismissing the Suburban as a subpar race or assuming that Mystic Guide and Happy Saver gave poor efforts, consider that Max Player has always shown talent.

Last year, Max Player won the Withers Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct to start his campaign on the Kentucky Derby trail. Max Player did not continue on the trail and instead came off a 140-day layoff in the modified nine-furlong Belmont Stakes in June, where he made a mild closing bid for third and lost by 5 1/4 lengths to the sharp Tiz the Law. To end his time under trainer Linda Rice, he then ran another closing third again in the Travers Stakes (G1) at Saratoga.

Max Player never ran that poorly in any of those 3-year-old stakes races. He was missing only one more step to reach the top mix of horses in his crop.

After a mild fifth-place finish in the postponed Kentucky Derby and another mild closing fifth in the October edition of the Preakness Stakes, Max Player went on the shelf and did not run again in 2020.

With many talented and well-bred colts, the public never gets to see their transformation into a strong and faster older horses because they head to a breeding career after their 3-year-old seasons. As a son of Honor Code with two Grade 1 placings, Max Player had done enough to warrant a stud career if the connections chose to go in that path.

Luckily for racing fans, Max Player remained in training.

Max Player came back with a dismal 11th in the Saudi Cup and sixth in the Pimlico Special (G3) to start his new campaign with two disappointing finishes. In fairness with the Pimlico Special effort, Last Judgment led the field uncontested on a speed-biased track.

In the Suburban Saturday over the slop, Max Player took the possibility of being pace compromised out of play by showing improved speed. 

Moretti set the pace, while Max Player surprisingly took second.

Mystic Guide traveled inside in third, while Happy Saver settled outside in fourth.

Because Max Player ran near the pacesetter, he only had to follow through with a closing punch from his upfront position. Some closers cannot stay in the battle after displaying early speed because running closer to the pace tends to dull out their kick. In this instance, though, it felt like Max Player was traveling in second naturally under his own power.

On the turn, Mystic Guide moved into the lead through the rail, and Max Player went forward as well on the outside. Although Mystic Guide tried to separate from the field, Max Player had perfect aim on the favorite. 

Although Max Player had to work in mid-stretch, he gradually put his face in front of Mystic Guide to eventually win by a neck and score the upset over the top dirt router in training. The most impressive part is that Max Player proved that he could still kick in despite showing more speed in the early stages. The Max Player in the Suburban was a different horse. 

In other words, Mystic Guide did not lose this race with a poor effort. Rather, Max Player took the Suburban with a step forward. For this race, at least, Max Player did not resemble the closer who kept picking up checks in major 3-year-old races or the version of himself in the Saudi Cup and Pimlico Special. Max Player performed like a top dirt router. 

The question is whether Max Player keeps up the momentum down the line at Saratoga and beyond, even on a fast main track. Max Player also broke his maiden on slop in December 2019 at Parx Racing, which means two of his three lifetime wins came on slop.

When horses love a particular surface such as slop, sometimes it propels them into flashing more speed because their grip is better. Maybe that is the main reason Max Player traveled in second early in the race rather than in mid-pack. Can Max Player show tactical speed on fast dirt?

As for Mystic Guide, he ran fine for his first start since the Dubai World Cup (G1) win. Yes, at 4-5, bettors are supposed to expect nothing less than a win, which makes the loss disappointing because he did burn significant money. But Mystic Guide kept running well from start to finish. He still ran a quality race despite losing to the improved Max Player.

Expect Mystic Guide to rebound at Saratoga. Without a doubt, he remains the one to fear in the Whitney Stakes (G1), Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) and Woodward Stakes (G1).

Happy Saver turned in a flat effort in his second start off the layoff. Even though he had a wide trip, one would expect him to threaten the leaders and he never did. Looking at the results chart, he ran in fourth for a good portion of the race until edging out Moretti for third. The fact that he defeated Moretti by only a neck for third is not a great sign.

With that said, Happy Saver could move forward in his third start off the layoff. Some horses need only one warm-up race before hitting their best stride, while other horses need at least two races off the break. 

But if Happy Saver runs against Mystic Guide and Max Player again off this effort, it will be hard to endorse him. Happy Saver needs to prove he can move forward as an older horse and not just match the 3-year-old form that won him the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1). Otherwise, Mystic Guide, Max Player and other horses will leave him behind.

Moretti put forth a good effort to set the pace and almost beat his stablemate Happy Saver for third. As trainer Todd Pletcher said in an interview, this race was Moretti's stepping stone for the 1 3/4-mile Birdstone Stakes at Saratoga, which Moretti won last year. He seems ready to win the same race again.

In any case, the shock over Max Player outkicking Mystic Guide Saturday to win by a neck seems closer to hyperbole rather than truth. Max Player is now in the mix of top dirt routers after beating Mystic Guide and Happy Saver. He needs to prove only that he can repeat the effort on fast dirt. Mystic Guide remains on top of the division – for now.


Meet Reinier Macatangay

My first time at the racetrack came as a 5-year-old kid at Santa Anita Park. For most of my younger life, that was the only track I attended other the occasional visit to Hollywood Park. 

Years later, after graduating California State University, Stanislaus with an English MA, I began writing for Lady and the Track. From late 2014-2016, my articles were seen on a weekly basis and covered handicapping, interviews with well-known racing personalities, fashion and more. 

The handicapping style I use concentrates on pace analysis. Some horses are compromised by the pace. Others are helped. Handicappers just starting out cannot easily see how pace affects the finish, so with this blog, I hope to help those unsure of how to apply pace into their handicapping and post-race analysis. 

On an unrelated note, I enjoy video games and attending anime or comic-book conventions. I am currently based in Kentucky, but spend a lot of time traveling between there and California.

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