Though Maximus Ruler finished third in his debut last November, it didn’t take long for offers to start coming in for the then 2-year-old colt. Two weeks later, after the son of Roman Ruler skipped the maiden level and defeated winners at Churchill Downs, the offers—some of them seven figures—came pouring in.
Don Benge, who bought Maximus Ruler privately last year, rejected all offers for Maximus Ruler because he wants the thrill of possibly having a horse on the Triple Crown trail. The owner will get his first chance at that wish when the 3-year-old battles 10 rivals in the $100,000 LeComte Stakes (gr. III) Jan. 23 at Fair Grounds. Maximus Ruler drew post 1 in the one mile and forty yard contest, which is Fair Grounds’ first step toward the $750,000 Louisiana Derby (gr. I) on March 27.
“He’s got what I like to call ‘the package’,” said Clark Hanna who trains Maximus Ruler for Benge. “He’s about 16-3 (hands) and has a wide frame. He does things so simply; he’s going really fast but it doesn’t look like it. He has a big, long stride.
“The owner is 79 or 80. He sold his business and doesn’t really need the money. He wants to enjoy this horse; this is what he lives for. We know getting to the (Kentucky) Derby is a crapshoot; we’re realistic. We’ll take one hurdle at a time and this is the first one. If the horse shows us he can run at this level, we’ll go to the next one.”
Benge and Hanna have had a relationship for more than a decade, with modest success. To date, their best horse together has been Wise River, a now 7-year-old turf horse who has won six times, including the Robert Carey Memorial Handicap (gr. IIIT) in 2008 and has earned nearly $400,000. Hanna is based at Churchill Downs and has about 10 horses with Benge.
“This is definitely the most talented horse we’ve had,” Hanna said. “By far."
“In his first race (Nov. 14 at Churchill, third by a head), he had all kinds of traffic trouble and was much the best in my opinion," Hanna said. "If you watch the replay, there was a horse that broke down in front of him that he had to avoid. He made a big run on the outside and just got nailed.
“He was doing so well and I wanted to get another start for him before the Churchill meet ended but there were no maiden races that last day. So I put him in an allowance race (on Nov. 28) and he handled it well (won by a length). He’s gotten bigger since then—wider mostly—and is starting to mature and put it all together.”
Maximus Ruler, who is the 4-1 second choice on the morning line and will be ridden again by Francisco Torres, has been working well since his arrival at Fair Grounds this winter. He turned in his final work for the LeComte Jan. 19, getting four furlongs in :48.40. Clark said he galloped out five furlongs in 1:02 with ease.
“It looks like he wants to go further. We’ll see,” Hanna said.
Maximus Ruler was bred in Kentucky by Hargus Sexton and Sandra Sexton, and is out of the Lost Code mare Lost Love.
The 7-2 favorite in the LeComte is Pricilla Graham’s Turf Melody, a 15 1/4-length maiden winner last summer at Colonial Downs and winner of the Dec. 13 Springboard Mile at Remington Park in his last start, where he came from way off the pace to get up by a nose. The son of Maria's Mon is trained by Graham Motion. Jose Valdivia Jr. will have the mount.
The 5-1 co-third choices are Winmore Cool Bullet, undefeated in two starts for trainer Steve Margolis at Fair Grounds this season, including the $60,000 Sugar Bowl Stakes in his last start Dec. 19, and Jay Em Ess Stable’s Worldly, second by a length behind Risen Star (gr. II) candidate Stay Put in his local bow Jan. 3. Worldly, trained by Paul McGee, was third in Churchill’s Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) Nov. 28.
Worldly completed his preparations for the Lecomte on Jan. 18 by breezing an easy four-furlongs in :51.20 with new jockey Robby Albarado up.
"Robby was on him and he was real pleased with him," McGee said. "He’s coming back off three weeks rest so I told Robby just to go an easy half and that’s just what he did. I’m pleased with the way the horse is doing and Robby felt he breezed well so I feel like we’re all set.
“We think he’s a stakes-caliber horse. He’s a quality horse—he showed that when he was third in the graded stake at Churchill and I think he showed it breaking his maiden. We’ll stick him in there and see what happens."
Leading trainer Steve Asmussen, who picked up his second straight Eclipse Award earlier this week, has two colts entered—Depaul and Letsgetitonmon. Depaul, broke his maiden at Calder last summer and was soundly beaten in an optional claimer at Fair Grounds in his second start on Jan. 3. Letsgetitonmon has won just one of eight starts thus far.
The LeComte is the fifth of six stakes on the Fair Grounds card with a post time slated for 4:43 p.m. CST.
$100,000 LeComte Stakes (gr. III, Race 10, 4:43 p.m.), 3YO, 1 Mile and 40 Yards (Dirt) PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Jockey 1. Maximus Ruler (KY), F C Torres, 120, C Hanna
2. Turf Melody (KY), J Valdivia Jr., 122, H G Motion
3. Worldly (KY), R Albarado, 116, P J McGee
4. Depaul (KY), S J Sellers, 116, S M Asmussen
5. Citrus Kid (KY), M Mena, 122, J P Terranova, II
6. Callide Valley (KY), C J Lanerie, 120, E Kenneally
7. B'wanagoldmine (FL), E M Martin Jr., 120, D Pish
8. Letsgetitonmon (KY), S Bridgmohan, 116, S M Asmussen
9. Cool Bullet (FL), B J Hernandez Jr. 122, S Margolis
10. Rock Hard (KY), J Theriot, 118, B C Barnett
11. Ron the Greek (FL), J Graham, 116, T M Amoss