The expectations surrounding Maxfield on his 3-year-old debut at Saturday’s Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs can be viewed through the prism of two other horses who recently returned from extended time off.

Maxfield Returns
The last time we saw Maxfield race, he came from ninth to first to win the Breeders’ Futurity last October. He returns to the gate at Churchill Downs Saturday after 7 1/2 months off. (Image: Eclipse Sportswire)

The first: Bob Baffert’s Tale of the Union, who returned to the starting gate at Santa Anita last Friday after at 20 ½-month layoff. His last race as a 2-year-old told a great tale – an eight-length, maiden-breaking romp at Del Mar in August, 2018. But Tale of the Union’s story as an odds-on favorite in an allowance optional claiming race last week wasn’t a good one for bettors. He finished a well-beaten seventh out of eight.

Then you have Monomoy Girl who missed her entire 4-year-old season after battling colic and a hamstring strain. All she did in her return last week as the 1/2 favorite was dismantle an allowance optional claiming field by 3 ½ lengths on a sloppy Churchill Downs track.

Two comebacks. Two wildly different outcomes. Or something in between? This is what awaits Maxfield, one of the most heralded horses in a deep crop of 3-year-olds.

Returning to Action After 7 1/2 Months Off

Trained by Brendan Walsh, Maxfield hasn’t run since winning the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland by 5 ½ lengths last Oct. 5. That dialed in the son of 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense as a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile favorite. It also sent him to the top of many Kentucky Derby watch lists.

Maxfield’s ankle had other ideas. A bone chip required November surgery and – Derby prep season or otherwise – Walsh was in no hurry to rush Maxfield back. He planned running him in one Derby prep race before the Derby. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, the Derby pushed back to Sept. 5, and suddenly, the picture seemed clearer to Walsh.

“We were going to try to make the Kentucky Derby if it was in May. It was going to be a little tight, and we probably would have been down to trying to do it with one prep under our belt,” he told Bloodhorse. “But as soon as things shut down, we moved him up to Kentucky and felt our way around for a couple of weeks. We gave him more time because we weren’t sure when racing would resume. As things progressed, I had a middle-of-May date in my mind when he would be ready.”

Wintering in Florida Isn’t Just for Retirees

Maxfield spent the winter slowly recuperating at Palm Meadows in Florida. Walsh shipped him to Kentucky in mid-March and worked him out at Keeneland for the first time on April 10. A month later, Maxfield reeled off a 59.2-second five-furlong gate drill – the fastest time of the 34 horses running that distance that day.

“The biggest difference we have all noticed with him from last year to this year has been his physicality,” Walsh told Churchill Downs. “We never really questioned what he was like mentally, but you can tell when we got him back to training, he’s really filled out physically.”

Your Fifth-Favorite on One Derby Future Board

Currently at 12/1 on William Hill’s Derby Futures board, Maxfield could be a mild bargain – even with the Derby four-plus months out. Keep in mind that horses running the Derby this year will do so as 3 ½-year-olds, not 3-year-olds. The summer reveals plenty about horses who peak in the spring and horses who peak later in their 3-year-old seasons.

“We always looked forward to seeing him at 3 because we thought 3 and 4 would be his best years,” Walsh told Bloodhorse. “He’s filled out into his frame over the winter and he’s turned into a really, really good-looking horse. I hope he does as well on the racetrack as he’s done physically.”

The 1 1/16-mile Matt Winn offers 50-20-10-5 Derby qualifying points to the top four finishers. Maxfield already has 10 in the bank, courtesy of his Breeders’ Futurity win. All that remains now is seeing which comeback path Maxfield takes on Saturday.