A notorious disqualification from America’s greatest race, a contentious victory in the richest race the world has ever seen, a discredited drugs-tainted trainer: there can’t be many more controversial horses than Maximum Security.
At every twist and turn, and largely through no obvious fault of his own, an ostensibly brilliant career has been dogged by unwanted headlines.
Lest it be forgotten as we near the Breeders’ Cup Classic, that by some measures the four-year-old remains just about the world’s number one dirt horse, having finished behind a grand total of just two rivals in 13 starts.
He has been first past the post in both America’s most famous race and the richest race ever run in the history of the sport; he is a four-time Grade 1 winner altogether, though that would be five if the Saudi Cup had been eligible for such status straight away.
Watch the 2020 Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Friday 6th and Saturday 7th November.
Having started off in the sport’s lower reaches, he has won more than $12 million in prize-money – though it wouldn’t be Maximum Security if there wasn’t a dispute about that figure.
Even now, after arguably the worst performance of his life, he features among leading fancies for North America’s most prestigious race.
Given the horse’s unlikely antecedents in a risible maiden claimer at Gulfstream Park, one might be forgiven for thinking Maximum Security could almost be portrayed as the ultimate rags-to-riches tale, a feelgood ‘American Dream-style’ fairytale about a horse who emerged from nowhere to beat the world.
But, believe me, it isn’t, not even if rose-tinted specs happen to be your favourite fashion accessory. And not only because his owners Gary and Mary West are billionaire telecommunications entrepreneurs who aren’t exactly short of a few cents to make the rent. Riches-to-riches then, as they say – but that’s nothing like the full story when it comes to Maximum Security.
Retrace it here via the more notable episodes in a chequered career.
A homebred son of the Wests’ Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner New Year’s Day, Maximum Security suffered from “unspecified physical issues” which meant he did not make his two-year-old debut until December.
But whichever way you cut it, and whatever mitigating circumstances there may have been, the fact remains that he started off in a lowly maiden claimer worth $21,000 in prize-money at which he could have bought for just $16,000. Yes, that’s right: a horse who would win the most lucrative purse in the history of horse racing, was risked in a low-grade claimer.
Don’t ask me why. OK, his original trainer Jason Servis (more on him later!) made a habit of spotting his horses aggressively, often below their true ability level, which was one reason for his startling strike-rate in recent seasons. As a punter, you saw the name Servis and bet with confidence.
Oddly, Servis’s claiming runners rarely seemed to get claimed – maybe people thought there was no room for improvement? – but even so, running a horse like Maximum Security for a cheap tag was surely an act of utter recklessness. (You may also note the use of the past tense when talking about the trainer’s modus operandi.)
"He wasn't showing a lot in the morning," explained Servis later in the horse’s career. "It was the end of the year ... I didn't think, as a claiming trainer, which I am, that he was that attractive.”
Let the record show that Maximum Security wasn’t even sent off favourite before winning that 6 1/2 furlong dirt claimer by the small matter of 9 3/4 lengths.
He also wasn’t claimed – and needless to say it was the one and only time he was up for grabs in that sphere.
Servis and the Wests got away with it. But frankly, what on earth were they doing?
Maximum Security continued on his merry ways, staying at Gulfstream and running beneath his grade in early 2019, when he was campaigned in a couple of relatively minor dirt sprints (albeit not for purchase).
These weren’t even Listed conditions races in our terms; unsurprisingly, he won without breaking a sweat, latterly at odds of 1-10 in a seven-furlong event in late February. He scored by 18 1/4 lengths.
So here we had a horse who had been run well beneath his conditions over what was to prove the wrong trip in his first three races, and had won them by a cumulative margin of in excess of 35 lengths.
Still, some considered he was just a flat-track bully as Servis dramatically raised his sights (and distance) for the Grade 1 Florida Derby, where Maximum Security was only fourth favourite. Having taken an early lead, he won unchallenged by 3 1/2 lengths. Kentucky here we come. Whoo-hoo.
As surely anyone with even a passing interest in US racing knows, this is where Maximum Security’s name really attracted notoriety as he became the only Kentucky Derby winner ever to be thrown out on the day of the race. (In 1968, Dancer’s Image was DQ-ed later for a drugs violation.)
Put simply, Maximum Security was much the best horse in the race, making all and crossing the wire nearly two lengths ahead of longshot Country House – only to be demoted for interference to other horses when he swerved out at the head of the stretch in a rough race.
After 20 minutes, Country House became perhaps the most fortunate winner in the history of the Kentucky Derby. Maximum Security’s jockey Luis Saez also received a 15-day suspension for his efforts.
Though entirely defensible under US rules, the decision was hardly clear cut – it could be argued both ways – and Gary West was incensed, launching a lawsuit in a bid to overturn the stewards’ decision. He failed, and was roundly lambasted for being a sore loser. “I don’t care what people think,” he said.
Oh yes, the favourite for the Kentucky Derby that Maximum Security did not win in the end? Fifth-placed Improbable, trained by Bob Baffert. Maximum Security would be seeing both horse and trainer again before too long.
After not rejoining the battle for the final two legs of the Triple Crown, Maximum Security was to target the $1m Haskell at Monmouth Park in New Jersey.
He returned to action in a six-runner Listed race, the Pegasus Stakes, a designated Haskell prep, for which he was sent off a 1-20 favourite. And, this being Maximum Security, he suffered a shock defeat, run down in the stretch for the first time in his life by King For A Day.
At the time, it didn’t really matter, because a month later he came back to justify odds-on favouritism with a solid effort over a good field when the chips were down and the money was on the table in the Haskell. Mind you, there was a bit of interference there as well, probably no worse than there had been at Churchill Downs.
Still, the world was his oyster, seemingly. Shame we didn’t see him for another three months. There were also other pointed questions about the Pegasus, although nobody was to know that for about nine months.
The major skirmishes of the second half of the season came and went without Maximum Security. Servis said he hadn’t been training well enough to run in the Travers; he missed the Pennsylvania Derby owing to a reported colic.
Criticised for avoiding the Breeders’ Cup, the normally reticent Servis went on the attack, suggesting it would have been asking far too much after a layoff. He gained a degree of sympathy when Maximum Security returned in October with a G3 win at Belmont Park before one of his most admirable displays as he outbattled Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Spun To Run at the latter’s specialist trip in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile.
If grudging recognition of his talent was all that maximum Security had generally been afforded, this was a determined effort showing, showing he had the heart to match his ability.
It was also enough for him to be voted US champion three-year-old, though he was only third behind turf star Bricks And Mortar for Horse of the Year. Which, in hindsight, was probably just as well.
Now this was something. Coolmore had bought into Maximum Security – he even carried the Michael Tabor colours in Riyadh – and the horse was the star attraction at the much-trumpeted inaugural edition of the Saudi Cup meeting where $20m was on offer for a single nine-furlong dirt race.
First prize was $10m – and it appeared destined for Maximum Security’s connections after a memorable contest beneath the floodlights as he held off formidable US compatriot Midnight Bisou, with a top-class international field spreadeagled across the Saudi desert.
"For a second I thought we were going to be beaten but he has such a big heart,” said an emotional Saez, who had been through the mixer after the Kentucky Derby. “He's the toughest horse I've ridden.”
Little did he know what was to come. If there was cause for celebration, it didn’t last long.
INTERMISSION: FBI stakes – 9 March 2020
Jason Servis never seemed to attract much affection among certain sections of the US racing community. For some, it could be construed as jealousy, and his training methods were certainly unconventional, with a focus on slow, regular gallops with brief bursts of speed.
Or maybe other factors were involved. In March 2020, barely a week after Maximum Security’s victory in Saudi Arabia, Servis was named alongside Florida-based colleague Jorge Navarro in a federal indictment alleging that the two trainers and 25 other individuals had engaged in a drugs conspiracy involving systemic abuse of performance-enhancing substances.
The shockwaves emanated right across the sport, leaving Servis’s reputation in absolute tatters. He is no longer training.
Much to the chagrin of Gary West, the Saudi authorities refused to release the winner’s share of Saudi Cup prize-money amid the ongoing FBI investigation and these seismic allegations also cast a shadow over everything Maximum Security had ever achieved.
The horse was specifically named, having allegedly been administered a designer drug, SGF-1000, "intended to promote tissue repair and increase a horse's stamina and endurance”. It is collquially known as ‘red acid’.
However, the irony is that the specific instance on which the horse is said to have been given anything untoward was in the period before the Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth – the only race he had at that point ever properly lost!
With Servis persona non grata, Maximum Security was shipped across country to join Bob Baffert.
Presumably the legendary trainer, like the rest of us, had no idea what to expect – he certainly played it that way – and the colt arrived on the west coast with minor lameness before a break to ensure anything that might have been in his system had time to clear.
In some respects, Baffert was starting from scratch, and a major fail seemed on the cards when the colt scraped home at 2-5 in a Grade 2 trial for the Pacific Classic. In typical Maximum Security-style, he was rather more impressive in Del Mar’s signature contest itself, drawing away to score by three lengths.
The ship was righted; everything looked set fair for a clash with the three-year-olds at the Breeders’ Cup. Or so we thought: to use a vernacular phrase favoured by Baffert, Maximum Security ‘laid an egg’ in his prep run at Santa Anita in the G1 Awesome Again.
Looking unhappy throughout, he just held on for second, completely overwhelmed by his new stablemate Improbable (remember him?), who duly shot to the head of Breeders’ Cup Classic betting.
Come on, who knows? Even after the least creditable run of his career, when it comes to Maximum Security, frankly your guess is as good as mine. But here it must be admitted that there’s a part of me wouldn’t mind seeing him win.
For the poor horse’s besmirched reputation, if nothing else.