James Bond fans understand that people should never say never.
But after Parx Racing‘s biggest day of racing of the year, it can unequivocally be said that there will never be another maiden claiming race like the 10th race at Gulfstream Park Dec. 20, 2018.
That $16,000 maiden claimer has already become famous through its 10 3/4-length winner, Maximum Security, who went on to post wins in the Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1) and TVG.com Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1), not to mention being disqualified from first to 17th in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1).
But Sept. 21, that maiden claimer was elevated to an even more lofty status when another horse from that race became the grade 1 winner of a $1 million stakes.
In the aftermath of Maximum Security being scratched from the $1,015,000 Pennsylvania Derby (G1) because of a colon issue, it fell to Math Wizard to bestow even more fame on that December claimer. He was third that day, but in one of the sport’s top races for 3-year-olds, he rallied from last to win the 1 1/8-mile stakes by a neck over Mr. Money at 31-1 odds.
“That is the greatest $16,000 maiden claiming race there will ever be,” said winning trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. after his first start—and victory—in an American grade 1 stakes. “I know things can change, but there will never be a claimer like that one.”
It probably would take a literal math wizard to calculate the odds of two horses emerging from a maiden claimer and each becoming a winner of a grade 1 stakes with a $1 million purse, but on Saturday, under an aggressive ride from Irad Ortiz Jr., the chestnut son of Algorithms —bred in Kentucky by Lucky Seven Stable—defied the odds and added even more uncertainty to the 3-year-old division.
Maybe it’s crazy, but if Math Wizard can return and win the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), could it make the “other” horse in the Dec. 20 maiden claimer the champion 3-year-old?
Crazier things have happened.
Or have they?
“I’m 100% crazy enough to go to the Breeders’ Cup, though I don’t want to make any decisions now,” said majority owner John Fanelli, who owns the colt along with Collarmele Vitelli Stables, Bassett Stables, Ioannia Zoumas, Wynwood Thoroughbreds, and Joseph. “I don’t want to say it’s a weaker field (of 3-year-olds), but there’s been a lot of injuries. You’re seeing a lot of different things happen to these horses.”
Just getting to the Pennsylvania Derby was tricky enough for Math Wizard. After his horse was sixth behind Mr. Money in the Aug. 3 West Virginia Derby (G3), Joseph gave his 3-year-old some time off and he blossomed back at his Florida barn.
The original thought was to run in the Sept. 29 Remington Park Derby (G3), but when Joseph heard there would be a contentious field, he looked for other options. The Parx race came into play, but Joseph wasn’t sure how he could get Math Wizard to Pennsylvania in time for the race until Fanelli arranged for a FedEx flight Sept. 19.
It was such a last-minute deal that jockey Edgard Zayas decided to stay in Florida, opening the door for Ortiz to win the Pennsylvania Derby for the second time, joining his win at 19-1 odds in 2012 with Handsome Mike .
Math Wizard paid $64.20 to win.
Unlike Maximum Security, Math Wizard was claimed out of the Dec. 20 race. He was also claimed in his next two starts, capped by an 18 1/2-length victory when Joseph claimed him for $25,000 Jan. 31 in a seven-way shake.
“There were seven people in there,” Fanelli said, “though the way people talk, you’ll hear there were a thousand in there.”
After running in a starter race, Joseph got ambitious and lined up stakes assignments for his new acquisition, and Math Wizard did not embarrass himself.
He was fourth in the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G2), followed by a fourth in the Oaklawn Invitational Stakes as the favorite, a second in the Ohio Derby (G3), and a third in the Indiana Derby (G3), again behind Mr. Money.
The weak effort in the West Virginia Derby was disappointing, but Joseph saw enough positive signs afterward to try graded stakes company again.
“When we got him home, he looked different,” Joseph said. “His coat came back.”
He was surely a different horse in the Pennsylvania Derby against five rivals that included Improbable, the beaten favorite in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes (G1), Preakness winner War of Will, and Mr. Money, who had beaten Math Wizard in his past two starts en route to four straight grade 3 wins.
Improbable was the 6-5 favorite off a sharp and well-behaved win in the Shared Belief Stakes for trainer Bob Baffert, but he reverted to his wayward ways in the gate Saturday and reared at the start, which kept him toward the back of the pack.
“He reared. There was nothing I could do,” jockey Mike Smith said. “I was lucky to stay on. He’s a son of a gun in the gate.”
Without the ailing Maximum Security to set the pace, that job fell to Allied Racing Stable’s Mr. Money, who got away with a cushy :49.60 opening half-mile as War of Will and Spun to Run pressed him.
With the exception of the overmatched maiden Shanghai Superfly, the field bunched up at the top of the stretch after six furlongs in 1:13.44, and Mr. Money dug down and fended off the challengers—except for one.
Moving on the far outside, Math Wizard was fourth at the eighth pole but went past Mr. Money late to narrowly prevail in 1:50.94.
“When he changed leads in the stretch, he took off,” Ortiz said.
For trainer Bret Calhoun, there was disappointment in Mr. Money’s loss but satisfaction in a body of work that includes four wins and a second in the Goldencents colt’s past five races.
“There’s no excuses,” said Calhoun, who was uncertain of future plans for his 3-year-old. “It’s very disappointing, obviously, but we won four in a row, and that’s not easy.”
Gary Barber’s War of Will was third, a nose ahead of WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, and Starlight Racing’s Improbable, in an improved effort over his unplaced finishes in the Jim Dandy Stakes (G2) and Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1). Spun to Run was a neck back in fifth.
“I was proud of him, and what I liked best was that he was in the race,” trainer Mark Casse said about War of Will. “He wanted to be there. Even in defeat, he never gave it up.”
Pride was just one of the many emotions that filled the 32-year-old Joseph as he savored the biggest and most unlikely win of his career.
“I was overwhelmed by this. Everything was to be. We were blessed. We just claimed him at the right time. You dream about it, but when you think about it realistically, you can’t expect to win a $1 million race with a $25,000 claim,” said Joseph, who won the 2009 Barbados Triple Crown with Areutalkintome. “Racing gets a bad rap, but nothing gives me a feeling like this, outside of my kids. These horses mean everything to me.”