Nine years after co-owner George Hall celebrated a 24-1 upset of the 2011 Belmont
(G1) with Ruler on Ice, his homebred Max Player hopes to spring a surprise of his own in the Kentucky Derby
Max Player’s dam, Fools in Love, was a stablemate of Ruler on Ice in the Kelly Breen barn. An $80,000 purchase at Fasig-Tipton’s Eastern Fall Yearlings Sale at Timonium in her home state of Maryland, Fools in Love earned triple that on the track. She scored her signature win in the 2009 Orleans at Delta Downs and placed in four other stakes.
Fools in Love paid even handsomer dividends as a broodmare. Before her first foal hit the racetrack, her value already increased through the exploits of her siblings. Full brother D C Dancer captured the 2014 Maryland Million Sprint, but half-brother International Star became a multiple graded winner on the Derby trail. After taking the 2014 Grey (G3), International Star swept the Fair Grounds road to the Derby – the 2015 Lecomte (G3), Risen Star (G2), and Louisiana Derby (G2) – only to be scratched on the morning of the Run for the Roses.
Fools in Love’s first two offspring were stakes-placed as sophomores, Urban Bourbon finishing third in the 2016 Dania Beach (G3) and Frank’s Folly a distant third in the 2017 Weber City Miss. Her third foal put her on the map.
Seahenge, her colt by Scat Daddy, sold to Coolmore’s M.V. Magnier for $750,000 as a Keeneland September yearling and shipped to Aidan O’Brien in Ireland. Successful in the 2017 Champagne (G2) at Doncaster, Seahenge was third in the Dewhurst (G1) at Newmarket.
Nominated to the 2018 Triple Crown, Seahenge tried a couple of Derby points races, but proved no match for stablemate Mendelssohn in either the Patton S. at Dundalk or the UAE Derby (G2). Seahenge tagged along with Mendelssohn to Churchill Downs, where his target was the Pat Day Mile (G3). Although neither could cope with the sloppy track, Seahenge fared better in his race (seventh) than Mendelssohn, who was eased after a brutal trip behind Justify.
Like Seahenge and his other stakes-performing half-siblings, Max Player was bred by K & G Stables, which takes its name from Hall’s children Katherine and George. His Versailles, Kentucky, farm – Annestes – is a combination of Hall’s mother’s given and maiden names. That also reflects his children’s respective middle names.
Max Player’s pedigree sports a cross similar to the one that produced 2014 Derby and Preakness (G1) champion California Chrome
, in that both are by an A.P. Indy/Pulpit-line sire and out of mares by the longtime Maryland patriarch Not for Love. The key differences, however, are that Max Player’s parents are far more accomplished than Chrome’s.
Max Player is from the first crop of blueblood Honor Code, who like his late sire A. P. Indy holds court at Lane’s End. The champion older dirt male of 2015, Honor Code also has the highly regarded Honor A. P. in Saturday’s Derby.
When Max Player was a weanling, the Halls offered his dam at the 2017 Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale through the Lane’s End consignment. Fools in Love was a hot commodity at that point, with Seahenge’s juvenile campaign fresh in mind, and she commanded $1 million from Great Britain’s Cheveley Park Stud.
But Max Player was not so much in demand during his own turn in the Keeneland ring the following September. As a late foal, born April 28, he was still unfurnished, and the picky buyers during the premier Book 1 portion of the sale passed him over. Consigned by Lane’s End as agent, he was led out unsold with a top bid of $150,000.
In keeping with the Halls’ past pattern, Max Player was sent to Eisaman Equine near Williston, Florida, for his education. Barry Eisaman, who also prepared Ruler on Ice, remembered Max Player as a “big, laid-back” juvenile.
“He didn’t advertise his abilities much in the morning because he was so well-behaved,” Eisaman said, adding that sometimes he hoped that the youngster would show a bit more verve.
A classmate of onetime Derby candidate Uncle Chuck, Max Player graduated before he did. Max Player joined trainer Linda Rice at Belmont Park and recorded his first official work last June, but didn’t make his debut until Nov. 12 at Parx. Racing greenly and well back early, he figured things out in time to rally for second, and improved next time out to romp at the same track.
Max Player raised his game again to win the Withers
(G3). Before he could continue his progress on the track, the COVID shutdown of racing in New York put him in a temporary holding pattern. But Rice commented
that he “improved dramatically” during that time, and once racing resumed, a savvier colt would take his chance in the Belmont.
Going into the Belmont
, Max Player added a dynamic new dimension to his ownership, as SportBLX Thoroughbreds became partners with Hall. A company co-founded by Hall and Joseph De Perio, his colleague from the Clinton Group Inc. hedge fund, SportBLX gives fans the opportunity to “invest in shares representing (i) the future earnings of professional athletes or (ii) equity ownership in sports teams,” according to its website. The SportBLX Thoroughbreds offering included Max Player and three younger Annestes homebreds.
Max Player gave his new investors a run for their money by closing for third, well adrift of the imperious Tiz the Law but gaining on runner-up Dr Post. Since the Belmont was a one-turn, 1 1/8-mile affair this year, a stretch-out in the 1 1/4-mile Travers
(G1) figured to suit Max Player even better. He didn’t drop as far back at Saratoga, but the result was the same as he reported home third to Tiz the Law.
Transferred from the New York-based Rice to Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen at Churchill Downs, Max Player has had more time to train locally ahead of the Derby. As a colt who still has upside, he’s eligible to move forward on Derby Day.
A victory would resound across the globe to Fools in Love’s home at Cheveley Park, to France where Seahenge stands at stud, and as far afield as Chile where his “uncle” International Star is a stallion. But perhaps the most poignant celebration would occur at Lane’s End. Having mourned the loss of A. P. Indy
in January, the Lane’s End team has reason to hope that Honor Code will prove a worthy successor.
Photo courtesy of Keeneland/Photos by Z