John Clay

Keeneland winner joins Funny Cide favorites on Breeders’ Cup/Kentucky Derby trail

Is it too early to start thinking about the 2020 Kentucky Derby?

It’s never too early to start thinking about the Kentucky Derby.

Especially after a crowd of 26,567 turned out at Keeneland on Saturday to enjoy the perfect weather, and maybe win a little money while watching a trio of Grade 1 races leading up to next month’s Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita.

And one of the featured three was the track’s top Fall Meet race for 2-year-old colts, the 106th running of the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, in which a youngster named Maxfield made a maximum impression.

Trained by Brendan Walsh for Godolphin Stables, Maxfield blew by favorite Gouverneur Morris in the stretch and took the $500,000 race by an impressive 5 1/2 lengths for jockey Jose Ortiz.

It was the first Grade 1 win for Walsh, who had worked on-and-off for Godolphin and won the Grade 2 UAE Derby this year with the ridgling Plus Que Parfait, who went on to run eighth in the Kentucky Derby. Now, Walsh will have one of the favorites for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Nov. 1.

“Obviously, we’ll see how he comes out of this,” Walsh said afterward. “But if you don’t bring him, who do you bring?”

Maxfield will be one among many top Juvenile candidates in California, of course.

A sentimental favorite emerged Saturday when the blast-from-the-past team of 81-year-old trainer Barclay Tagg and ownership group Sackatoga Stable, connections for 2003 Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide, watched their 2-year-old Tiz the Law run away with a 4-length win in the $500,000 Grade 1 Champagne Stakes on Saturday at Belmont Park in New York.

And then of course, waiting in the wings, is another pair of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile favorites in West Coast wonder Eight Rings, trained by Bob Baffert, and Louisville favorite Dennis’ Moment, trained by Dale Romans.

A son of Empire Maker, who beat Funny Cide in the 2003 Belmont, Eight Rings broke his maiden with an eye-opening 6 1/4-length win and 94 Beyer Speed Rating at Del Mar on Aug. 4. Next time out, he proceeded to unseat his rider in the Del Mar Futurity. After that hiccup, however, he returned to form with a 6-length win in the American Pharaoh Stakes on Sept. 27. A $525,000 purchase at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale in 2017, Eight Rings appears to be Baffert’s best shot at a fifth Breeders’ Cup Juvenile win.

After failing to finish in his first race on June 23 at Churchill Downs, Dennis’ Moment roared to a 19 1/4-length victory at Ellis Park on July 27. The son of Tiznow came back on Sept. 14 to win the Iroquois at Churchill Downs by 1 3/4 lengths. Purchased for $400,000 by Albaugh Family Racing in the Fasig Tipton New York Saratoga Select Yearling Sale, Dennis’ Moment is headed to California with hopes of giving Romans his first BC Juvenile win and, who knows, maybe his first Kentucky Derby win.

A lot can happen between now and then, of course. Take Gouverneur Morris, the 3-2 favorite for Saturday’s Breeders’ Futurity. Owned by Team Valor International and WinStar Farm, the strapping gray colt had broken his maiden with a 9-length romp at Saratoga on Sept. 2 for trainer Todd Pletcher.

maxfield win.jpg
Maxfield earned a spot in next month’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita by winning Saturday’s Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity by 5 1/2 lengths at Keeneland. Alex Slitz

And Saturday, the son of Constitution held the lead in the stretch when — boom — there went Maxfield flying by.

“We were just second-best today,” said WinStar CEO Elliott Walden of his promising young colt.

“The winner was the best horse,” said jockey Javier Castellano.

Indeed, Maxfield was impressive.

“He’s just a good horse,” said Walsh. “Everybody can see that. He’s a special horse. It doesn’t surprise me because he’s just one of those horses you point him in the right direction and he does what you ask him to do.”

The Kentucky Derby is seven months away, but it’s never too early to start moving in the right direction.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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