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J.J. Watt of racing changes his address – for now

By Ron Flatter  ( 

Shown winning last September’s running of the Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs, Maxfield tries to run his record to 6-for-6 on Saturday in the Santa Anita Handicap. (Coady Photography provided by Santa Anita Park)

Arcadia, Calif.

He is unquestionably talented and also unrequited. A great individual star whose career, interrupted by injuries, is still without a title to show for his excellence. Sound familiar, J.J. Watt?

It may be a stretch to compare the undefeated colt Maxfield to the erstwhile Houston Texan who has found a new home with the Arizona Cardinals. But trainer Brendan Walsh has brought his 4-year-old standout west from his winter home in Louisiana. Still on the comeback from missing last year’s Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup, Maxfield (8-5) is the morning-line favorite for Saturday’s 8 p.m. EST running of the $400,000 Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap.

“I’ve always thought the horse was very talented,” Walsh told VSiN in a podcast interview here at Santa Anita. “The couple times he got injured, we were disappointed, but we knew he was going to be a nicer horse going forward.”

He was all the rage as a 2-year-old, and he might have been the favorite here for the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. That was before an ankle chip took him off the racetrack for more than seven months.

That injury might have kept him out of the Kentucky Derby, but Maxfield got a reprieve when COVID led Churchill Downs to push the race back four months. In between, though, he suffered a condylar fracture in his right front cannon bone. There went the Derby and also the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland.

Despite being so lightly raced and unable to stay fit, the 4-year-old Godolphin homebred that was sired by 2007 Derby winner Street Sense has never looked like he ever had any trouble, racking up five victories in as many starts. He came back from his second seven-month spell to win a minor stakes in December at the Fair Grounds. Then he began his 4-year-old season Feb. 13 with a 3¼-length victory in the Grade 3 Mineshaft, also in New Orleans.

“When Maxfield showed up here the other day, everybody’s jaw kind of dropped open,” Hall of Fame jockey turned agent Gary Stevens said. “They said, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute. Where did he come from? How’s he out here? But I’m glad he’s here. He definitely has star power and is one of the best older horses in the country.”

The local horse Express Train (3-1), a Grade 2 winner in January for trainer John Shirreffs, may be the biggest threat to Maxfield’s undefeated record in this weekend’s 1¼-mile race. Both will be stalking the pace likely to be set by another pair of 4-year-olds – Tizamagician (12-1) and King Guillermo (12-1). Tizamagician will be ridden by Drayden Van Dyke, who is represented by Stevens.

“It’s Richard Mandella training him, and he’s a modern-day Charlie Whittingham,” said Stevens, referring to the late Hall of Famer who won the Big ’Cap eight times. “I know how he operates, and I guarantee you one thing. He’s probably got the fittest horse going into this race.”

The play here will be topped by the chalk with Maxfield, ridden by Florent Géroux, over Idol (6-1), a Richard Baltas-trained allowance winner by Curlin that has been in the money in a pair of Santa Anita graded stakes this winter.

If Maxfield wins, there may be another reason for him to come back to the west coast. Santa Anita and Del Mar have combined to dangle a $1 million carrot, namely a bonus for sweeping the Big ’Cap, the Hollywood Gold Cup in May and the Pacific Classic in August.

“Without upsetting anybody, I didn’t know about the $1 million bonus until Tuesday,” said Walsh, who had just arrived that day to look after Maxfield’s morning gallops. “It didn’t actually have any influence whatsoever. But of course it’s good to know that. If it did suit us that we were going to run in one of the other races, maybe it will be an added incentive for sure.”

Free agency. It is not just for humans anymore.

Racing notes and opinions

Count on Life Is Good (4-5) becoming the flavor-of-the-week favorite if he wins this weekend in the $300,000 Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. If he wins, he will be on his way to delivering Bob Baffert his seventh training victory in the Kentucky Derby. If he wins, he may be not just the individual favorite in the ongoing fourth pari-mutuel pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. If he wins, he may be shorter priced than the “all others” mutuel field. That is if he wins. Baffert has said that the $525,000 colt by Into Mischief has to save some of his impressive early speed for the end of his races. He called it. Life Is Good’s four-length lead at the top of the stretch eroded to three-quarters of a length by the end of the Jan. 2 running of the Grade 3 Sham. That was a mile. Saturday’s 5:30 p.m. EST race is 8½ furlongs. His stablemate Medina Spirit (7-2) nearly caught him and is back for a rematch. The Great One (4-1), trained by two-time Derby winner Doug O’Neill, lost by a nose to Spielberg in the Los Alamitos Futurity before winning a maiden mile by 14 lengths in January. Of the other six in the field, he is the one who could steal this. The trifecta-box play of Life Is Good, Medina Spirit and The Great One will be powdered in chalk, but it looks like a winner.

If not for rain Candy Man Rocket (2-1) might be undefeated. The morning-line favorite for Saturday’s $400,000 Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby has attracted some attention – and long-term betting dollars – by going 2-for-2 on fast tracks. One problem. Showers and maybe a thunderstorm are in the forecast for Saturday’s 5:25 p.m. EST race. The Candy Ride colt trained by Bill Mott did not take to the slop in his debut last November at Churchill Downs. He since broke his maiden by 9¼ lengths in a Gulfstream Park sprint before winning at two turns in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis. That was 8½ furlongs at Tampa Bay Downs as is this race, and the winner will be virtually qualified for the Kentucky Derby. It could be a rerun of last month, when Boca Boy (15-1) set the pace only to fade to fourth. The closer Hidden Stash (4-1), third in the Sam F. Davis, could use a little more distance, but it will not come in this race. Slop or no slop, there is enough speed Saturday to think a pacesetter – either Boca Boy, Promise Keeper (8-1), Moonlite Strike (20-1) or King Of Dreams (20-1) – could easily lead from gate to wire. Mark Casse’s minor-stakes winner Helium (6-1) should carry a big price and could close on the early pace to parlay his two 2020 wins from the synthetic track at Woodbine. But betting against the classier Candy Man Rocket, 70-1 in Derby futures in Las Vegas, seems foolhardy. The play is on him at short odds to win with a little bit underneath on Helium.

Secretariat is the only horse that ever came through the Gotham Stakes to win the Kentucky Derby. It has been 48 years since that double, and there is no reason to think that it will not be 49 after Saturday’s running of the $300,000 Grade 3 mile. Keeneland stakes winner Highly Motivated (8-5) and Jerome winner Capo Kane (5-1) will be short-priced albeit flawed. Capo Kane has a habit of drifting wide in the stretch, and that was evident last month when he finished third in the Grade 3 Withers. Highly Motivated went into four months of hiding in the Chad Brown barn after he won a minor sprint stakes last fall at Keeneland. The bet here – and for many – will be on Freedom Fighter (5-2). Baffert shipped him to New York off a narrow loss to the very promising Concert Tour last month in the Grade 2 San Vicente. There is a reason New York winters do not produce winners in the Kentucky spring. The best trainers who have horses in the east put their better runners in Florida. Freedom Fighter may be a Baffert hand-me-down to Ozone Park, but the company he has kept looks better than the rest of this field. Forecasters say it will be sunny, windy and 36 degrees for the Gotham on Saturday at 5:07 p.m. EST.

Four people from a group of about two dozen animal-rights protesters put a halt to racing Thursday afternoon at Golden Gate Fields. They locked hands and formed a circle lying on the backstretch in a demonstration aimed at ending horse racing. Tweets linked to the protest condemned the sport for being deadly to horses, although they could not seem to agree on an accurate count of how many had died. A statement from track management said, “Golden Gate Fields is a firm believer in the right to protest. However, the current actions of the protesters have forced the closure of the onsite COVID vaccination clinic, and hundreds of people have already had their vaccinations canceled.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at and more frequently for coverage of big events. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at For the first time in a year the RFRP is back at the track. This time it comes from Santa Anita, where one of three Kentucky Derby preps will be run this weekend. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens talks about Life Is Good in the San Felipe Stakes. Trainer Brendan Walsh discusses his undefeated colt Maxfield in the Santa Anita Handicap. From Florida former NFL quarterback Shaun King previews the Tampa Bay Derby. South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews handicaps these races plus the Gotham Stakes in New York. The RFRP is available for download and free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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