George Hall's Max Player, trained by Linda Rice and patiently piloted by Dylan Davis, proved resilient in overcoming a difficult trip to win Saturday's Grade 3, $250,000 Withers at Aqueduct Racetrack.
Sent to post at odds of 5-1, Max Player was in tight and on the heels of Mr. Shortandsimple taking significant kickback into the first turn before Davis gathered up the dark bay Honor Code colt and angled him outside for smoother sailing.
Settled wide in fifth position, Max Player grinded his way into contention through the final turn, rallying outside of Monday Morning Qb and finding his best stride late to put away Grade 2 Remsen-winner Shotski by a commanding 3 ¼-lengths.
“He's not seasoned enough to handle the kickback yet. He hasn't handled it well, but Dylan did a good job of keeping him close enough to contention and getting him outside to where he could get comfortable,” said Rice.
Bred by Hall's children, George and Katherine Hall, Max Player garnered an 86 Beyer Speed Figure and 10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points in victory.
Rice said the colt was in good order on Sunday morning and will target the Grade 2, $750,000 Wood Memorial on April 4 at Aqueduct, where 100-40-20-10 Kentucky Derby points will be available to the top-four finishers in the nine-furlong test.
“He looks good this morning,” said Rice. “He came out of the race great and looks happy and playful. We'll head on to the Wood Memorial.”
The next step on the New York path to the Kentucky Derby is the Grade 3, $300,000 Gotham, a one-turn mile on March 7 offering 50-20-10-5 points, but Rice said she prefers to continue at a distance of ground with the improving colt.
“I really don't want to shorten him up in the Gotham. I don't think that serves our purposes,” said Rice. “We're happier to stay here and train into the Wood and go from there.”
Max Player made his first two starts at Parx, finishing second in his November 12 debut before drawing clear to a 4 ¼-length score over next-out winner Irish Cork on December 17.
Rice said the colt, who raced greenly through kickback at Parx, showed marked improvement on Saturday.
“I've seen a lot of improvement in him in the last sixty days. In the sixty days before that, he was moving forward by leaps and bounds and yesterday was a great experience for him,” said Rice. “Hopefully he'll continue to improve in the next 60 days prior to the Wood, because he's certainly going to have to be at the top of his game in that caliber of race.”
The well-bred Max Player became the first stakes winner for 2015 Eclipse Award-winning older horse Honor Code, who closed from out of the clouds to capture the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap and Grade 1 Whitney that year.
Max Player's second dam, Parlez, produced multiple graded-stakes winner International Star who swept the Fair Grounds preps for the Derby in 2015 only to scratch heading into the first Saturday in May with a hoof issue.
Rice said she is buoyed by the solid pedigree of her improving pupil.
“Honor Code was a late-closing type as well and Max Player seems to take after his father,” said Rice. “Honor Code closed to win the Whitney going a mile and an eighth and he was 20 lengths out of it.”
Hall has previous Triple Crown success with Ruler on Ice, who captured the 2011 Belmont Stakes. Earlier that year, their multiple graded-stakes winner Pants On Fire finished ninth in the Kentucky Derby.
Rice, who recently saddled her 2,000th career winner, added her 200th career stakes win with yesterday's score. She is currently the leading trainer at the Big A winter meet in both wins (30) and purse money ($1,496,806), and said she's hoping to secure another milestone in May with a first Derby starter.
“Well, we found ourselves on the Derby trail as of yesterday,” laughed Rice. “That's something that's been on my bucket list, so we're excited about that. Hopefully, that will come to fruition.”
Rice also saddled Darlene Bilinski and Harry Patten's Prince of Pharoahs to a sixth-place finish in the Withers. The dark bay American Pharoah colt graduated at second asking in October at Belmont and was second to undefeated Independence Hall in the Jerome on New Year's Day at the Big A.
Rice said the distance was a factor in Saturday's result and she could consider the Gotham for a next start.
“I believe the distance might have been too far for him,” said Rice. “We'll shorten him up and see how much time he needs between races.”
The stakes action will continue next weekend for Rice when she sends out maiden winner Montauk Traffic for Chris Fountoukis and multiple stakes-winning New York-bred Newly Minted for Beach Haven Thoroughbreds.
Montauk Traffic, a Kentucky-bred Cross Traffic grey, dwelt at the start in his December 14 debut at Laurel Park but showed some promise when galloping out well. He followed up with a smart 4 1/2-length score on December 28 when sprinting seven furlongs at Aqueduct.
He is pointed to the seven-furlong on Saturday Jimmy Winkfield at Aqueduct.
“I ran him back on short rest after the debacle in Maryland,” said Rice. “We were all frustrated with that circumstance and we managed to correct it quickly. We've been looking at the Winkfield as a possibility for him and he's been training very nicely.”
The well-bred Montauk Traffic is out of the graded-stakes winning dam Taittinger Rose and Rice said the colt has the potential to be a good one.
“I think there is (potential),” said Rice. “He lacks experience, obviously. The first time things went very poorly. He needs some seasoning, but we're excited about his future.”
Newly Minted, a 4-year-old Central Banker bay bred by Chester and Mary Broman, has won 5-of-8 starts with purse earnings in excess of $400,000. She has won from six furlongs at first asking up to nine furlongs – when nine lengths the best in the Fleet Indian on August 23 at Saratoga – and will make her next start in Sunday's one-turn mile.
Newly Minted ran fourth in the Empire Distaff in October at Belmont but fell in the gallop out, requiring some time off. She returned with a strong second in a December 8 allowance at Aqueduct and returned on December 22 to annex a Big A allowance field by 7 ¼-lengths.
“She's doing fine,” said Rice. “We raced her two weeks apart last time, so I've been taking it easy with her. She'll be ready for the Biogio's Rose and we're excited about that.
“She's had a couple missteps here and there, having broke poorly in the allowance race on December 8,” continued Rice. “But she recovered to run second to a nice filly in Bridlewood Cat.”
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