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The Santa Anita Handicap, once the crown jewel of the Santa Anita season with winners such as Seabiscuit and John Henry, has fallen on hard times of late. Its purse has slipped from $1 million to $400,000 as the country’s best older horses have elected to run in Saudi Arabia and Dubai for mega-million-dollar purses.
With the race's Grade 1 status hanging in the balance, Santa Anita and Del Mar got together this year and came up with a $1-million bonus for any horse that can sweep Saturday’s Santa Anita Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup at Santa Anita on May 31 and the Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 21.
And who pops up at the doorstep but the best horse few have heard of: Maxfield, an undefeated 4-year-old who has the trappings of being among the very best in the sport.
So, the plan worked?
“I only heard about [the bonus] on [Wednesday]," said Brendan Walsh, the Irish-born trainer of Maxfield. “I just thought this was a chance for a Grade 1 win early in the year. There aren’t that many in this country the first half of the year.”
The first half of the thoroughbred schedule is structured around the Triple Crown races for 3-year-olds. This year, there has only been one Grade 1 dirt race for horses older than 3 in the U.S. and that was the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 20.
Maxfield, as they say, could have been a contender on last year’s Triple Crown trail after a very fast start as a 2-year-old.
He broke his maiden in 2019 in his first try at Churchill Downs and followed that up with a Grade 1 win in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland. He was all set to go for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita until a problem was discovered in his ankle.
“He came out for the Breeders’ Cup but he just wasn’t right,” Walsh said. “That’s when we found the bone chips. We just couldn’t run him.”
So Maxfield took time off until May of last year when he won the Matt Winn at Churchill Downs.
“He came back and worked and that’s when we found out he had a condylar fracture [of the right front leg],” Walsh said. “He had to have surgery on that as well.”
This took the late-in-the-year Triple Crown races off the table, and after some more time off, Maxfield came back in December and won the Tenacious Stakes at the Fair Grounds, followed by a win in the Mineshaft Stakes, also in New Orleans, in February.
“With any luck we’ll keep him healthy and sound and he’ll prove to be the horse we all thought he could be,” Walsh said.
It’s unknown if Saturday’s 1¼-mile race will be competitive or little more than a paid workout for Maxfield. Jon White, the Santa Anita morning line maker, has him as the 8-5 favorite to stay undefeated. Those with the best shot to beat him include Express Train, winner of the Grade 2 San Pasqual, for trainer John Shirreffs, and Independence Hall, third in the Pegasus World Cup, for Michael McCarthy.
“He’s the best horse I’ve ever trained by a long ways,” said Walsh, who started training on his own in 2012. “I’ve been around a lot of good horses [as an assistant], but he is up there among the very best.”
Walsh doesn’t believe there is added pressure with an undefeated colt, because everyone presumes the streak will come to an end sometime.
“It’s very rare for a horse to be unbeaten,” Walsh said. “It’s an achievement just to go five starts and be unbeaten. You don’t see that anymore. Even American Pharoah lost early in his career. It’s just a reflection of how talented he is, especially given the interruptions he’s had.”
Walsh won’t commit to Maxfield coming back for the Hollywood Gold Cup should he win Saturday.
“I don’t know, maybe,” Walsh said. “The main thing is that we get a good body of racing throughout the year, pick off some nice purses and have a good year with him, given that his history is spotted with injuries. But, I think we got him right, now we just get some continuity in his races.”
Being undefeated at 4 years old already indicates some decent continuity.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.