'Staying the course': Rice thinks less is more for Max Player

'Staying the course': Rice thinks less is more for Max Player
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire

Is less more?

Max Player’s path to the $1 million Travers (G1) on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course would seem to suggest that.

Consider that the son of Honor Code entered the June 20 Belmont Stakes with only three career starts and with close to five months off since his commanding victory in the Feb. 1 Withers (G3) at Aqueduct. To the surprise of many, he ran third to Tiz the Law and Dr Post in the 1 1/8-mile Belmont, the opening leg of this year’s reworked Triple Crown.

Trainer Linda Rice was not among those surprised by the performance off such a prolonged layoff.

“I think that he has improved a lot. He was a late-developing colt. We got him started late,” she said of the April 28 foal. “He made a lot of progress in November and December to win the Withers in February.”

Conventional wisdom would have suggested that Max Player be entered in one of two divisions of the May 2 Arkansas Derby (G2) at Oaklawn Park or the Matt Winn Stakes (G3) three weeks later at Churchill Downs. After lengthy discussions with owner George Hall, the decision was made to pass on those two spots.

“I just didn’t see it as a positive thing to travel the horse,” said Rice, who typically stays close to her New York base.

She was unfazed by keeping a promising 3-year-old on the sidelines for so long and the obvious second-guessing that would come if Max Player ran poorly upon his return. She gladly took that chance.

“In the uncertain times we’re in, I think the horse continued to train forwardly and make a lot of progress from February until June, when we ran in the Belmont,” she said.

Solid Travers favorite Tiz the Law added to his previous success in the Florida Derby when he ruled the Belmont by 3 3/4 lengths. Max Player was another 1 1/2 lengths behind runner-up Dr Post.

Given the less-than-ideal circumstances, Rice was heartened by the result of the one-turn Belmont. “He hadn’t run in five months. It was a mile and an eighth, a Grade 1,” she noted. “It was the historical Belmont, so I was very pleased with it.”

Rice believes it was certainly a race to build on, particularly for jockey Joel Rosario. “I felt maybe he was a little too far back early,” she said. “That was Joel Rosario’s first time riding the horse, so I think there was a little learning curve there. I think that Joel may be a little more aggressive with him early.”

It also is worth noting that the youngster lost considerable ground when he was fanned seven wide in the upper stretch.

Max Player has worked four times in preparation for the 1 1/4-mile Travers, capped by a six-furlong drill in 1:14 2/5 on July 27 at Belmont Park.

“He’s doing very well,” Rice said. “He was training brilliantly into the Belmont. I don’t know that he’s moved forward, but I was very happy with him coming into the Belmont. So we’ve basically just been staying the course into the Travers.”

Max Player was not asked to make his debut until Nov. 12, when he placed second at Parx Racing. He closed his brief 2-year-old campaign by breaking his maiden at Parx on Dec. 17. The connections have been extremely protective of him until now, with the selection of the Travers. Hugely promising but raw Uncle Chuck will ship in from the West Coast for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert and joins Tiz the Law as a prime contender.

“Certainly, there were other probably easier options at various places, but they’re never easy,” Rice said. “With that said, it just seemed to make more sense to stay home.”

Max Player ranks 15th on the Churchill Downs leaderboard with 40 qualifying points, so the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby would be next as Rice bids to become the first female trainer to win a Triple Crown race. She is not concerned about the relatively quick turnaround from the Travers to the first Saturday in September.

“I think he’s had plenty of time to mature,” she said. “Provided he runs well in the Travers, I think the four weeks will work.”

2020 Travers Stakes (G1)

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