Sometimes, we just don't appreciate the gifts we are given. It took a $20 million race halfway across the world in a place Americans know little about to finally make many people appreciate the gift that is Maximum Security, who is to the new Saudi Cup what Cigar was to the Dubai World Cup. He has made the race.
Allow me to anthropomorphize the situation and say that this brilliant, courageous, and gritty Thoroughbred has done everything in his power to remove the stigma of that controversial and historic disqualification at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. It's as if he has been on a mission to show the world just how special he really is and to show the Churchill Downs stewards what a blunder they made. Many believe they got it right, and that is what added to the heated controversy.
Since that day he has been intent on proving to people that he was not only a deserving winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) but a true superstar and one of the most brilliant, courageous, and resilient horses we have seen in years.
And what an adventure he has taken all of us on. The bottom line is, if they don't make a movie of this horse's life and all the melodrama that has surrounded it, then they should never make a horse racing movie again, because this is the one where you can comfortably deliver that old cliché, “His story is too unbelievable even for Hollywood,” and actually mean it. All the elements are there for viewers to experience the gamut of emotions—thrills, anger, heartbreak, shock, redemption, and in the end that warm and fuzzy feeling that only a horse can give you.
Let's just substitute Mickey Rooney for Luis Saez and Walter Brennan for Jason Servis and you have yourself a good old fashioned 1938 racing tearjerker. You don’t even need to find a screenwriter; you already have one. He simply goes by the name of Max.
The movie opens showing the rolling hills of Kentucky and mares and foals running in the field. It then focuses on one youngster contently nibbling on grass. They try to sell him but no one wants him. The scene then shifts to a broodmare contently nibbling on grass. They try to sell her but no one wants her. Then the scene shifts yet again to a farm showing a stallion in his paddock contently nibbling on grass. They try to sell him but no one wants him. Then it moves ahead to the foal winning a cheap claiming race. Still no one wants him. And there is your background for a real Cinderella story. Now all you need is to turn a pumpkin into a golden coach and complete the story.
Well, we all saw that pumpkin change before our eyes as Cinderella drifted into the realm of Aladdin and stepped into a $20 million golden coach.
“Ugh, too Hollywood already,” some cynical movie company executive says. “Let's scrap this idea right now."
I have recounted the story of Maximum Security several times in past columns, so no use going over it again, but in addition to his early racing days as a $16,000 claimer, being by parents who were virtually given away, and the Kentucky Derby fiasco that shook and divided the racing world, let's not forget that for the first time in the history of the Haskell Invitational (G1), they had to abruptly halt racing in midday because of the 100-plus-degree temperatures and make the Haskell horses wait around until after 8 p.m. before they could run the race. He wins anyway in front of his hometown fans, who also had to wait around for hours in the stifling heat before racing could resume.
Of course, what's horse racing movie without the leading horse getting sick. So, right on script, Max came down with colic that forced him out of the Pennsylvania Derby after he missed the Travers Stakes as well. And then there were his unorthodox workouts or open gallops or whatever you want to call them. We hadn't seen anything quite like them.
It's just been one bizarre, unprecedented incident after another with this horse. But strip all that away and you have one truly remarkable racehorse who has definitely created his own niche in racing lore, which to future generations will sound more like folklore. He did the only thing he knew how to do to keep the story going—he just kept winning.
Maximum Security even supplies his own outtakes, like taking a dump on national TV as he's walking into the starting gate of the Saudi Cup. Somehow that picture didn’t quite fit with all the glitz and glamour of winning a $20 million race some 90 seconds later.
But with all this frivolity, let's not forget there was a horse race, which attracted many of the world's top Thoroughbreds, from the U.S., Europe, the Middle East, and Japan.
As the field neared the head of the stretch, Saez, in second, was already pushing hard on Maximum Security and throwing crosses, but not making up an inch, while Irad Ortiz Jr. on the front-running Mucho Gusto, coming off an easy score in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes Presented by Runhappy (G1), was sitting motionless, high in the saddle. The race for all intents and purposes looked to be over. No one beats Bob Baffert under these circumstances.
Maximum Security kept trying, but was going nowhere. Every time he found a little push, Mucho Gusto drifted out into his path, forcing him farther and farther out. Finally, Saez had no choice but to alter course abruptly and dart to the inside, a move that usually never proves successful.
When he did, Maximum Security surged forward. He got by a stubborn Mucho Gusto and then had to dig in again to hold off the champion older mare Midnight Bisou, who got within a half-length, but could not gain another inch.
The music swells, reaching a glorious crescendo. The camera zooms in on the horse no one wanted and then the picture goes black. Roll the credits. I can feel the slight trickle of a tear down my cheek.
I clean the popcorn off my lap, leave the theater, and walk out into the light, which seems like a metaphor for racing itself. It was a much-needed light, very similar to the one I used to see following every major race back in the glory years when racing and the cinema melded so beautifully into one emotional roller coaster ride, whether realistic or not.
We don’t need Mickey Rooney. We don’t need Walter Brennan. We don’t need all those fictional horses like The Pie or Bluegrass or even the Black Stallion. We have our own equine hero, whose story reads like fiction. He has given us at least a slight ray of hope for the future, as well as rekindling those special feelings we had when racing was larger than life on the big screen. We watched those films with our heart, and it seems we are beginning to watch The Maximum Security Story the same way.