January 22, 2021

Five points to ponder: Matt Winn

Maxfield wins the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland 2019
Maxfield wins the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland 2019 (Coady Photo/Keeneland)

Add yet another item to the list of things that the COVID-19 pandemic has turned upside down: instead of its usual role as a post-Triple Crown event, Saturday’s repositioned and reimagined Matt Winn (G3) is a scoring race for the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby (G1).

The $150,000 affair is all about unbeaten comebacker Maxfield, one way or another. If the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) hero returns at anywhere near his 2-year-old level, he’ll ramp up expectations for the first Saturday in September. If he doesn’t, the story will revolve around his flop at least as much as about the winner.

Maxfield will need to be sharp enough off the bench, however. The Matt Winn features both established Derby prep campaigners and a proper up-and-comer competing for points on a 50-20-10-5 scale.

Here are my five points to ponder:

1. Maxfield brings massive upside along with the layoff question.

If Maxfield had been the type of precocious 2-year-old who wasn’t likely to keep up with the late developers as time went on, he’d be easy to oppose. Similarly, had the Godolphin blueblood needed a couple of races to break his maiden, you’d feel pretty comfortable giving him a race on Saturday.

But Maxfield fits neither of those obviously vulnerable profiles. Indeed, trainer Brendan Walsh has said how the big son of Street Sense was always regarded as a colt to blossom at three and even four.

In a recent interview with Thoroughbred Daily News, Walsh used the word “bonus” to describe whatever Maxfield did as a juvenile. Considering that he won first up on this track, and simply blew away a quality field including Gouverneur Morris and Enforceable in the Breeders’ Futurity, that’s some bonus. Maxfield recorded triple-digit Brisnet Late Pace ratings each time.

The question is whether Maxfield will live up to that outsized potential after his injury. Walsh sounds almost bullish about his training, even expecting the stronger 3-year-old to break better than the raw juvenile. Others have questioned whether we can take his Breeders’ Futurity margin at face value, arguing that he rallied out wide, a path that was playing favorably at Keeneland. The Matt Winn might not give us a definitive answer, but it should orient us in the right direction about his Derby hopes.

2. Pneumatic breezes in as the appealing stakes debutant.

With the reported scratch of Mystic Guide, unbeaten Pneumatic has the role of appealing stakes debutant all to himself. Trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, who has sent out a record-tying four Matt Winn winners, the Winchell Thoroughbreds homebred has won both starts at Oaklawn Park despite less-than-textbook trips.

In his career debut at 6 furlongs, Pneumatic bobbled shortly after the break, but still got up to edge next-out romper Skol Factor. The third-placer, Liam’s Pride, also came back to win his ensuing start. Stretching out to a mile allowance, Pneumatic appeared a bit too aggressive early, but still finished strongly to win going away by 2 1/2 lengths. The placegetters had a touch of stakes quality too, with the runner-up being New York-bred stakes winner Captain Bombastic and third My Friends Beer having been second in the Private Terms.

Pneumatic has a fine pedigree as a son of Uncle Mo and a Tapit mare who is herself closely related to Grade 1 hero Pyro, the 2008 Matt Winn winner. With his clear talent, he promises to add to the family’s black-type-rich page. The main question is whether Pneumatic is ready to break through with an upset of Maxfield. If he repeats his minor racing errors that didn’t matter at Oaklawn, it would affect his chances more at this level.

3. The Louisiana Derby form is on trial.

Three contenders were last seen in the March 21 Louisiana Derby (G2) – runner-up Ny Traffic, fourth Major Fed, and sixth Shake Some Action. The rub is how to evaluate the strength of the form.

Louisiana Derby winner Wells Bayou didn’t help matters when he faded to fifth in a division of the Arkansas Derby (G1). Granted, it might not be fair to judge since he gave up once Nadal inhaled him. Also, the Arkansas Derby was more a target of convenience than a set goal for Wells Bayou.

Still, that result did underscore the point that the Louisiana Derby was governed by the trip, namely who raced forward and who didn’t. Ny Traffic benefited from the race set-up at Fair Grounds, and all things being equal, you’d be tempted to downgrade him. But all things aren’t equal, since the Matt Winn isn’t overly endowed with pace, and the cutback to 1 1/16 miles suits him. Ny Traffic stands to work out another favorable trip, unless pace rival Celtic Striker goes faster than forecast, or Necker Island reverts to his old speedy tactics.

Major Fed arguably ran the best race of this trio in the Louisiana Derby. Slow to break on the rail and dead last of 14, the Greg Foley pupil angled widest of all and kept motoring in a sustained rally, unlike Enforceable who flattened out. With a halfway decent break, Major Fed should have finished a lot closer. The full brother to stamina-laden Zapperini relished the 1 3/16 miles of the Louisiana Derby, but will he have the zip necessary to win the shorter Matt Winn against some sharp types? The draw wasn’t too kind to Major Fed either as he wound up in the far outside post 12.

The Cox-trained Shake Some Action, the wild card of the Louisiana Derby alumni, has longshot appeal at 12-1. Like Major Fed, he was tactically disadvantaged at Fair Grounds, and appeared to brush with him as both were improving in upper stretch, but didn’t pack as much of a punch late. The cutback here might help the well-bred Into Mischief colt, who won what I thought (and still hope) was a key allowance two starts back. Third behind Shake Some Action in that Fair Grounds allowance was Winning Impression, who’s since finished fourth to Charlatan, Basin, and Gouverneur Morris in the other Arkansas Derby division.

4. Attachment Rate can give us a read on Dr Post.

To be fair, Attachment Rate has a right to move forward in his second two-turn attempt for Dale Romans. But his first 1 1/16-mile try in the Unbridled left us an indelible image: his ineffectually trying to keep heavy favorite Dr Post in a pocket. Dr Post imposed himself anyway in a taking performance, and Attachment Rate settled for second. If he follows up with a strong effort Saturday, I’d like to interpret it as a compliment to Dr Post.

Attachment Rate’s eye-catching runs have come around one turn, including his maiden-breaking romp in the slop, but on pedigree he ought to be effective at this distance. If the scattered showers hit Louisville enough to affect the track, the Hard Spun colt could benefit the most.

5. Flap Jack and Necker Island are still looking to build on their juvenile form.

Necker Island, 2-for-2 at Churchill, nipped the promising Silver State in the slop here last fall. But he hasn’t progressed in the interim, and the questions are mounting after his fifth in the Gotham (G3) and fourth in the Unbridled, in both cases outfinished by his fellow Hard Spun son, Attachment Rate. Unless the return to the Twin Spires makes all the difference to Necker Island, he might be better off shortening up.

Although Flap Jack has not seen to best effect this term either, the Calumet homebred perhaps has more plausible excuses. In his first start off the layoff, he chased the Gotham pace before tiring late in sixth. The Oxbow colt was again burned up by the pace meltdown in the Oaklawn S. With a more typical tempo, and in his third outing of the season, Flap Jack has a chance to turn the page. Note that his only win, in the 2019 Arlington-Washington Futurity, came third time out.