It was 15 years ago when a 2-year-old won his first two starts at what was then known as Philadelphia Park, won a third consecutive race at Aqueduct in New York and then headed south to gear up for the Kentucky Derby. That was Smarty Jones.
This fall, another 2-year-old won his first two starts at what is now known as Parx Racing, won a third consecutive start at Aqueduct and headed south Sunday morning to gear up for the Kentucky Derby. This is Maximus Mischief, the best 2-year-old stabled at Parx since the great Smarty.
Smarty did not make the races until November 2003 and then won that third start in January after he had turned 3 years old. Maximus Mischief made his debut on Sept. 29, won his second start on Oct. 20 and won the Dec. 1 Remsen Stakes, stamping himself as the best 2-year-old in the East.
When the calendar turns to 2019, any top-five Derby prospect list is going to include Maximus Mischief and probably three from the Bob Baffert barn. Baffert, who won the Triple Crown last year with Justify and in 2015 with American Pharoah, is modern history’s dominant Derby trainer and the all-time dominant Triple Crown trainer.
But Maximus Mischief is as live as any 2019 Derby horse in America. The big colt has freakish talent; with Beyer speed figures of 94, 98 and 97, numbers that are generally only seen from young horses that are capable of winning any of the major 3-year-old races, including the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
Maximus Mischief is trained at Parx by Bensalem resident Butch Reid, with wife Ginny a partner in everything that happens at the barn. They have been in the business a combined 80 years, winning more than their share, but always hoping to get the horse who can get them on the Derby trail and perhaps even win it. Maximus Mischief is that horse.
"This is the glamour division,’’ Reid said. "Everybody wants to be a part of it. It’s great for the owners and my family. My wife Ginny and [daughter] Whitney are just doing backflips over this. It’s very exciting.’’
The colt’s three morning workouts before the Remsen were mini-events at Parx. Owners Chuck Zacney and Glenn Bennett were there along with the Reids. As Frankie Pennington, about to become the first jockey in Parx history to win the riders' title five consecutive years, guided Maximus Mischief around the track, everybody knew what was at stake for the colt’s first big test after crushing two overmatched fields at Parx.
If the colt won the Remsen, it would get him and them a trip to Gulfstream Park for winter training and the Derby preps. Under a calm and confident ride by Pennington, Maximus Mischief could not have been any more impressive. The colt looked like the winner every step, but when he ran away from the only horse close to him at the top of the stretch, the Derby dream became very real.
The three Derby preps at Gulfstream in Hallandale Beach, Fla., are the Feb. 2 Holy Bull, the March 2 Fountain of Youth and the March 30 Florida Derby. The tentative plan is to run in the Florida Derby and one of the other two, probably the Holy Bull.
Reid, who grew up in South Jersey, began training in 1985. Like most of his brethren, he had some lean years. His best years have come in the last decade since he brought his stable to Parx.
Zacney, who put together the partnership that owned 2005 Preakness and Belmont winner Afleet Alex, purchased Maximus Mischief for $340,000 in May at the Timonium (Md.) sale. Bennett, who has had some decent horses but nothing like this, is having the time of his life. Now, they all get to experience the biggest thrill in the sport beyond winning the big races -- the months of anticipation over what could happen.
Zacney, incredibly, is also partners in Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Jaywalk. She was also trained at Parx by John Servis of Smarty fame before heading to South Florida where she will be getting ready for a possible run at the Kentucky Oaks, the day before the Derby. Zacney and Servis won the 2016 Oaks together with Cathryn Sophia.
In 2019, there is at least a possibility of a Zacney Derby-Oaks double.
Just getting to the Derby is an accomplishment. Back in 2004, Smarty Jones got there without a loss and left the same way.