Making his first start since finishing fourth in last year's Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT), Mark Bacon and Dana Wells' Silver Max, lit up the turf course at Churchill Downs with a wire-to-wire score in the Firecracker Stakes (gr. IIT). He won by 1 1/2 lengths over Nikki's Sandcastle, getting the mile in a short-fused 1:34.21 (VIDEO).
Sent off the 6-5 favorite against seven rivals under the Twin Spires, 5-year-old Silver Max was hustled out of the gate by rider Robby Albarado, quickly establishing his place on the front end with a :23.65 opening quarter. Free World gave chase along the hedge with Regally Ready tracking in the middle of the firm turf course. Nikki's Sandcastle and Valentino's Beauty were a few lengths off the pace as the opening half-mile went in :46.83.
On the far turn, Silver Max was cruising on the lead as Regally Ready made a bid but that opponent quickly flattened out. Silver Max reached the quarter pole in 1:09.98 and the eighth pole in 1:21.74 well clear of the rest of the field. At the line, Nikki's Sandcastle got the place in a tight photo with Guy's Reward—winner of the 2012 Firecracker—who came up the rail late for third and Villandry.
"I was more nervous before this race than before any other just to see how he came back and, boy, he delivered," Bacon said.
"Robby said he was really impressed with the way he did it and the way he galloped out so we're looking forward to the future," Bacon said. "It was good to get the first one under the belt."
Both Silver Max and Guy's Reward are trained by Dale Romans. Romans has now won four runnings of the Firecracker. His other winners were Thorn Song in 2008 and champion Kitten's Joy in 2005.
"It was unbelievable," Romans said. "This is special and he's a special horse."
Albarado won the Firecracker in 1999 aboard the Bob Baffert-trained Joe Who.
Silver Max paid $4.60, $4, and $2.80. Nikki's Sandcastle paid $5.80 and $3.40, and Guys Reward returned $4. The $2 5-4 exacta paid $29.
Villandry was followed by Free World, Valentino Beauty, Regally Ready, and Joha.
"That's very fast under today's conditions," Albarado said. "He was cruising along there pretty good and had his ears forward the whole way so I knew he was content with his cruising mode. He's got such a high cruising speed and that's his asset."
Silver Max, out of the Kissin Kris mare Kissin Rene, was bred in Kentucky by Steve C. Snowden and Seth and Will Lauffer.
He is a grade I winner, having topped two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan last fall in the off-the-turf Shadwell Turf Mile (gr. I) that was switched to Keeneland's Polytrack. Last year he also won the Bernard Baruch Handicap (gr. IIT) at Saratoga and Monmouth's Oceanport Stakes (gr. IIIT) prior to running fourth behind Wise Dan in the Breeders' Cup.
Silver Max has won 12 of 24 starts, with five seconds and one third. His $135,195 winner's share of the $224,800 purse pushed his career earnings to $1,913,598.