Greg Cote

Maximum Security, a flawed horse once on sale for $16,000, wins 68th Florida Derby

Jockey Luis Saez rides Maximum Security (7) to the finish line to win the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida, Saturday, March, 30, 2019.
Jockey Luis Saez rides Maximum Security (7) to the finish line to win the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida, Saturday, March, 30, 2019.

In late December this horse was on sale for $16,000 in a claiming race at Gulfstream Park, pocket change in the pricey world of thoroughbred racing.

Suffice to say Maximum Security is worth a little more today -- his value skyrocketing on Saturday on the very same track where he’d been available for peanuts 10 weeks earlier.

Maximum Security won Saturday’s 68th Florida Derby with force, going gate-to-wire out front at the Hallandale Beach track and winning by a comfortable 3 1/2 lengths. The unexpected victory in the $1 million, Grade 1 stakes race qualified the 3-year-old bay colt for the Kentucky Derby in five week and instantly elevated the horse to contender status for the upcoming Triple Crown season.

“I guess that ruins my fishing in May,” joked the winning trainer, Jason Servis.

The horse on Saturday earned $600,000 for owners Gary & Mary West Stables of Kentucky, amounting in a single day to 37 1/2 times what he’d been available for. It is one of those underdog stories sports seems to always have in store for us. A horse that didn’t sell in a claiming race winning the Florida Derby and now headed to Churchill Downs would be akin to an undrafted rookie making minimum salary leading your team to a championship.

Maximum Security went off at 6-1 betting odds as the fourth favorite -- not exactly an extreme longshot. But not even the one person who knows the horse best expected a triumph, let only a fairly commanding one.

Servis admitted he was not confident coming in, wondering if his horse was ready for its first Grade 1 test after only three career starts in which he’d won all three but vs. inferior competition. Maximum Security was unproven at best, a claiming horse with little pedigree, and even his trainer wasn’t sold.

That’s why he’d almost entered the horse in a Grade 3 race at Gulfstream last week instead.

“No, I didn’t know what to expect The jury was still out,” Servis said afterward. “I didn’t think he’d get claimed. He’s a home-bred. He had a few [negatives] I’d rather not get into. To me he wasn’t attractive. If he’d have run sixth {Saturday] would I have been surprised? No. But now he’s won a Grade 1. And it’s the Florida Derby!”

Maximum Security was nowhere among the 33 horses who received votes in the latest National Thoroughbred Racing Association 3-year-old rankings.

Team owners Gary and Mary West did not even attend the race -- another indication the result was not anticipated.

“I’m still processing it to be honest with you,” said Gary West.

Jockey Luis Saez guided Maximum Security expertly from the thicket of the No. 7 post and from the bell and the gates banging open was never really challenged.

“He raced so perfect. He took the lead and we took it,” said Saez, still in his pink racing silks.

Seventy-to-one longshot Bodexpress finished second and highly regarded Code of Honor, also headed to Churchill Downs, was third. Pre-race favorite Hidden Scroll crossed a disappointing sixth.

Maximum Security now vaults from little-known to rising star in part because 20 Florida Derby winners have gone on to win a Triple Crown race, most recently Always Dreaming in the 2017 Kentucky Derby. In fact three of the past six Florida Derby winners also have won the Run for the Roses.

Gulfstream’s four-month winter meet ends Sunday, but its last hurrah was Saturday’s Derby, which packed the premises with a thousand flowery, wide-brimmed women’s hats among the pageantry.

Gulfstream’s Pegasus World Cup, inaugurated three years ago, is a richer race, but the star and jewel of the track’s championship meet remains the Florida Derby, a South Florida sporting fixture since 1952, and the tradition of it is something we should appreciate more and more.

Because everything around our sporting landscape changes, it seems.

The PGA Tour abandoned Doral after more than 50 years.

Homestead-Miami Speedway just lost its prestigious season-ending NASCAR championship race to Phoenix.

Miami Open tennis is finishing its first tournament at Hard Rock Stadium after leaving its long-time home on Key Biscayne.

Heck, the Orange Bowl game left the Orange Bowl!

But the Florida Derby continues at Gulfstream every spring, an enduring gem, as safe a bet down here as sunrise and humidity.

And the lore of the event just added an unexpected chapter as it catapulted a $16,000 horse to the Kentucky Derby.