2014 Pennsylvania Derby Day Stakes Preview

Hat to be given away to first 4,000 guests on-track at Pennsylvania Derby Day. (Image courtesy Parx Racing.)

This weekend, Picks and Ponderings takes a figurative road trip to the City of Brotherly Love.  Saturday, September 20 marks the biggest day on the Parx Racing calendar: Pennsylvania Derby Day.  Three-year-old horses take much of the spotlight, with all three graded events restricted to sophomores.  The stakes schedule is rounded out by the Alphabet Soup Handicap for Pennsylvania-bred turf runners.  Last year, the winners of both million-dollar events moved on to finish second at the Breeders’ Cup: 2013 Pennsylvania Derby winner Will Take Charge missed Mucho Macho Man by a nose in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and 2013 Cotillion winner Close Hatches was second behind Beholder in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

The Pennsylvania Derby will be streamed live on the America’s Best Racing website starting at 4:30pm EDT.  The entire card can also be watched on the Parx Racing website; first post is at 11:25am EDT. In the (local to Parx Racing) Philadelphia area, The Comcast Network will also provide TV Coverage from 4:30pm to 6:00 pm EDT.

Race 9: Alphabet Soup Handicap, three-year-olds and up, Pennsylvania-bred, 1 1/16 miles on the turf, post time 3:25pm EDT

Best known as the 20-1 upset winner of the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Classic when it was staged at Woodbine Race Course near Toronto, Alphabet Soup was a Pennsylvania-bred who never raced in the Keystone State.  He raced from the David Hofmans barn (Adoration, Touch Gold, etc.) on the west coast, only twice leaving the confines of Southern California.  His only career G1 score came in the aforementioned BC Classic in Canada, though he won such Southern California handicap fixtures as the G2 San Antonio, the G2 San Pasqual, and G3 Native Diver. He currently stands for a $5,000 stud fee at Adena Springs in Kentucky, and among Alphabet Soup’s notable progeny are 2013 G1 Matriach winner Egg Drop.

Selections for this $100,000 race are made “turf only”.

Trainer E. Merryman brought ROADHOG back off a summer vacation last time to finish fifth in a six-figure open stakes down at Laurel.  He’ll be going second off the layoff in the Alphabet Soup and is the choice in this space.  He likes the Parx greenery, with three wins and two more podium finishes.  Before the layoff, he cashed checks in an open stakes at Pimlico and won a statebred “NC” allowance in Erie three back.  He does do well when the pace is slow upfront, but I like that he nosed out in the H.S. Clark Stakes (local prep to the G2 Dixie) when the fractions were more swift.  The fact he’s cashed checks in open company and the fact he likes fall turf (he took well to it last fall at Parx and Laurel) are additional plus points.  The Parx meet’s leading rider, Frankie Pennington, takes the call on PAGE MCKENNEY, who scored last time in an off-turf state-bred stakes at Penn National.  Pennington is half a jockey/trainer team that in the last two months has gotten together only twice, but both results were a win and an additional money finish.  That same trainer is three for ten on the year at Parx with two more finishes.  The humans make this equine live, but PAGE MCKENNEY does have nice credentials: A win over the Parx sod three back in a state-bred second-level allowance to show he’s elapsed his PA-bred conditions, a win by nearly seven lengths in an open allowance two back.  In fact, PAGE MCKENNEY rides a four-race win streak into this undercard feature, and as the hot hand deserves a look.  ATHELSTANE perhaps bit off more than he could chew last time in an open two-other-than allowance over at Monmouth.  That also was an off-the-turf allowance, and his grass form, though limited, is not too shabby.  He cleared the first-level state-bred allowance condition then was in a photo in a state-bred stakes two back over the local lawn.  Both of those efforts came on summertime ground with give, and autumnal turf can be less firm than summertime turf.  I think the Monmouth race is a smoke-screen, and once you peer through it, you get a horse who showed he can keep appearances with the state-bred turf gang and who will get first-time-lasix in this stakes.

Selections:

#6 ROADHOG (3/1)

#4 PAGE MCKENNEY (7/2)

#1 ATHELSTANE (12/1)

Longshot: This spot endorses a horse trained by John Servis, trainer of the best-known horse to Philly fans and gets a rider who has been riding at Parx at over twenty percent.  No, not taking the one by Elusive Quality, as Smarty had that in the pedigree line and that horse is heading for an underlay faster than you can say cheesesteak.  #9 DANCING LOUNGE (12/1) gets Paco Lopez, who has been riding lights-out at Monmouth, and when he comes to Parx is no slouch either.  DANCING LOUNGE has been hanging around with starter handicap horses, but it’s worth noting that he cleared his open two-other-than allowance condition over a year.  Like ROADHOG, it’s second off the layoff after being second at Monmouth going three turns in a starter handicap.  Before the lay, he won over the Parx greenery at today’s distance three back and at a mile and seventy four back, also in the starter handicap group.  Five of six in the money over the course with three wins, he went second off the layoff earlier this year at another hard turf course – Gulfstream – and posted a good figure.  A similar move forward puts him well in line with these. –PM

Race 10: Gallant Bob Stakes (GIII), three-year-olds, six furlongs on the dirt, post time 4:00 EDT

This race, a Grade III, $300,000 affair for sophomore sprinters, is named after the champion sprinter of 1975, Gallant Bob.  He is a fitting honoree for a six-furlong race for three-year-olds at Parx: Gallant Bob was himself three when he won his Eclipse award, and 24 of his 77 career starts occurred at Keystone Race Track (the track now known as Parx).  He was the first horse based at Keystone to win an Eclipse.  The first edition of the race was run in 1979, but this year’s will only be the 23rd edition, as it was not run in 1983 or from 1987-1998.  Last year was its first year as a graded event, and it retains that GIII status this year.

The pace in this race looks like it is going to be very hot.  Both Good Bye Greg and Fast Anna tend to like having the early lead, and everyone in the field save Bump Start has shown a propensity to try to be right there.  Fast Anna is lightly enough raced that his ability to rate is still a question: in three races he has been quickly ahead by daylight, never facing anyone nearly as fast as he is early.  Odds are he is still the fastest, but he may face the first early front-end test of his career with horses as fast as Good Bye Greg, Pure Sensation, and Favorite Tale up there as well.  Trainer Kathy Ritvo does take off Fast Anna‘s blinkers today.  He has such good early speed, and ability to carry it, that he is not likely to be too far off the pace.  However, this suggests he at least may not bolt a handful of lengths ahead in the blink of an eye.  Favorite Tale returns to Parx for the first time sine March, but he showed a lot in three wins at the oval.  The competition was weaker then: a maiden special, a state-bred N1X, and an open N1X.  He breaks from the rail here; the only other time he had the rail was in that open allowance win at Parx, and he finished fourteen lengths the best.  Six furlongs is a great distance for him, as well: he has two wins (including a stakes at Belmont), and two second-place finishes at the distance.  He finished beaten just a neck by Coup de Grace in the Oh Say three back, and then last out was 3/4 lengths behind Prudhoe Bay in the Jersey Shore (GIII) at Monmouth.  The aforementioned Prudhoe Bay showed last out in his Jersey Shore win that he could handle a protracted early fight on the front end, and still get six furlongs.  In his other three wins, he came from a few lengths off the early clip.  This ability should help him here, given the likely snappy early pace.  Jockey Paco Lopez, winner of last year’s Gallant Bob on City of Weston, rides Prudhoe Bay this year.  He has ridden him to three of his four wins, rides again here.  This includes both of his career wins at six furlongs.  Lopez does not always ride at Parx, but rides enough to know the course, and is 30-7-4-4 over it this meet.  As long as Prudhoe Bay handles the sometimes quirky surface, he has a good chance to succeed at square odds.

Selections:

#1 FAVORITE TALE (5/2)

#6 FAST ANNA (8/5)

#4 PRUDHOE BAY (6/1)

Longshot:  #3 BUMP START (20/1) cuts back from a mile and a sixteenth to six furlongs, the distance at which he won a Pennsylvania-bred stakes race two back.  He has shown an ability to stay off the front end early, even in a sprint race.  This capacity to rate helps his chances to stay in the race, since he does not have the explosive early speed of Fast Anna or Good Bye Greg.  He has been working well going into the race, and jockey Rosie Napravnik has the call.  As long as he stays at similarly long odds to his morning line, it may be worth either taking a flyer on him or using him in lower rungs of intra-race exotics in case of a speed meltdown. — NN

Race 11: Cotillion Stakes (GI), three-year-old fillies, 1 1/16 miles on the dirt, post time 4:45 EDT

The Cotillion Stakes was inaugurated in 1969 at the old Liberty Bell Park.  It ran there through 1975, when it was moved to Keystone Race Track, the venue now known as Parx.  It has happened every year since except for 1991, and always been contested at 1 1/16 miles.  The Cotillion had previously been a Grade II event, but in 2012 it received upgrades to Grade I status — and a million dollar purse.  Notable winners of the Cotillion include Hall of Famers Shuvee (the first winner, in 1969) and Ashado (2004), as well as more recent stars Havre de Grace (2010), Plum Pretty (2011), and My Miss Aurelia (2012).  Last year’s winner, Close Hatches, followed up her Cotillion win with a second-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff and has been the dominant force in this year’s older female division.

For a couple of the likely shorter-priced entrants in this field, this race seems to be the horse racing equivalent of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  For Stopchargingmaria, this race looks to be too short: she has done nicely at nine and ten furlongs this year, but faltered through the spring in two attempts at eight and a half.  She is in better form now, but dialing back to a distance that values speed a bit more than stamina.  For Sweet Reason, the race looks to be too long.  Even though she was third in the Gazelle (GII) three starts back, it was a well-beaten third, and she did not quite show the brilliance she has shown at shorter distances in the Acorn and the Test.

Instead of taking short prices on either of these, consider instead some horses for whom this race looks just right.  The lightly-raced Cassatt steps up to Grade I company for the first time, but has been brilliant in her two starts since being sidelined by injury.  Trainer Larry Jones took it easy for her return, sending her out in a five-furlong allowance as an MTO entry.  The rain washed it to dirt, and Cassatt trotted home an easy winner.  She did not start well last out in the Monmouth Oaks, but no matter: she handled the pressure put on her lead, and drew off late.  That race was her first route attempt, run at this very distance, and she showed she can handle it well.  Kerwin Clark, who rode her in both of these races, rides here as well.  She is working well, she can rate early, and she looks primed to break through here.  Jojo Warrior wasn’t really getting her hooves under her as a sprinter earlier this season, but finally scored her first stakes victory when she stretched to a mile and a sixteenth for the Summertime Oaks (GII) at Santa Anita.  She followed that up with another win in the Torrey Pines (GIII) at a mile at Del Mar.  Trainer Bob Baffert wins at 30% with his shippers; he means business when he sends his horses across the country.  Jockey Martin Garcia ships to ride her.  Garcia has ridden Jojo Warrior exactly three times: for her three wins.  She is likely the speed of the speed (a good place to be at Parx!), but even if she has to rate, she showed in her maiden win that she can come from a few lengths off.  Finally, we come to the elephant in the room: Untapable.  Despite her flop in the Haskell, she still reigns as the queen of the three-year-old fillies.  She has the speed, she has the seasoning, and she has the affinity for the distance.  In six starts at eight and a half furlongs, she has won four times.  She has clear reasons for the two races in which she did not win: her third-place in the Hollywood Starlet was over synthetic (a surface she has avoided since), and her eighth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies was due to getting caught behind the ill-fated Secret Compass.  This is a far tougher bunch than she faced in the Mother Goose or even the Kentucky Oaks, but she still ranks as the field’s clear class.  The price will be short, but the filly is good enough to justify it.

Selections:

#1 CASSATT (12/1)

#7 JOJO WARRIOR (6/1)

#8 UNTAPABLE (7/5)

Longshot: #4 JOINT RETURN (10/1) is one of only two horses in this field who has actually raced at Parx before.  Her career debut was an uninspiring third, but she won her next two starts at a mile over the oval, both times by daylight.  Of course, this field is significantly harder than a maiden field or an N1X field.  However, she has been in nice form this year, most recently finishing second beaten just 3/4 length by Stopchargingmaria in the Alabama (GI) at Saratoga.  She cuts back from that mile and a quarter to a mile and a sixteenth here.  The mile and a sixteenth has suited her well in the past: she won both the Busher and the Calder Oaks at that distance.  There could easily be enough pace for her to close into late, and her affinity for both the track and the distance give her a shot to do well at a price. – NN

Race 12: Pennsylvania Derby (GII), three-year-olds, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt, post time 5:40pm EDT

First run in 1979 (and not run in 2006), the Pennsylvania Derby has always been at nine furlongs. It started as a Memorial Day event and in 1990 (when the track was known as Philadelphia Park, in between its first iteration as Keystone and current nameplate as Parx Racing) was shifted to the position perhaps best associated with this race: being run on Labor Day.  On Labor Day it functioned as a “B” Derby, often a week after the Travers.  In 2010 it was moved to its mid September position that it’s in now.  Notable winners include eventual Belmont Stakes winner Summing (1981), Chicago-based Western Playboy (1989), Preakness winner Summer Squall (1990), and future G1 winners like Broad Brush (1986), Harlan’s Holiday (2002) and To Honor and Serve (2011).

A pre-scratch octet of sophomores will the starter for their share of a million dollars.  One time before, CALIFORNIA CHROME had drawn the rail, the Golden State Juvenile.  He turned in one of his worst efforts that afternoon on a Breeders’ Cup undercard.  It was so bad, even trainer Art Sherman forget about it on the NTRA teleconference, perhaps a bit of whitewash thrown in too.  That’s a big clue to this race, given that Parx is, on the average day, not a track with a kind rail.  Being on the outside in a stalking trip tends to win more often than not, and TAPITURE gets the nod here in an upset.  TAPITURE nosed out CANDY BOY last time in the G2 West Virginia Derby unleashing a run in the stretch.  The 1-2-4 finishers of the West Virginia Derby are here, and the third place finisher won with panache next out in Louisiana.  TAPITURE rides a two-race win streak into the PA Derby, having two back annexed the G3 Matt Winn at Churchill post-Kentucky Derby.  Nine furlongs is no issue (he won the WV Derby at nine panels), and he’ll got an honest pace to attack courtesy of C J’s AWESOME to his right that will likely challenge BAYERN for early control.   CALIFORNIA CHROME is a legitimate favorite, having ran the table earlier in the year in Southern California, then winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.  When he attempted to become the first Triple Crown winner in thirty-six years, he broke badly, got a quarter crack, and perhaps may have found the twelve furlongs too far.  After some rest and retooling, he (and the part-owner who has the disposition of a Brillo pad) are here in an obvious tune-up for the Breeders’ Cup Classic while also dodging 2014 Pacific Classic winner Shared Belief.  It’s a million dollars, but you have to wonder – and especially at a short price – if he’s the same horse he was before the early-year campaign.  Or, has he progressed and physically matured to be a force in the two Fall races he’ll be in?  He’s also at the rail, not the best place to be at Parx.  Still, regular rider Victor Espinoza makes the trip East and it would no surprise if he scored.  The local prep to this affair is the G3 Smarty Jones on Labor Day, won by PROTONICO.  He’s only made five starts on the career before today, but he won the local prep and was in the same zip code two back as V. E. Day, the upset winner of the Travers at the Spa. Three back was the first start as a sophomore, clearing the a-other-than condition.  As a three-year-old he’s got ascending figures, and he could once again catch a fast pace and be motoring in the lane. A Javier Castellano/Todd Pletcher team-up, he is one of only two horses in the field who have a win over the Parx dirt.

Selections:

#7 TAPITURE (5/1)

#1 CALIFORNIA CHROME (1/1)

#3 PROTONICO (8/1)

Longshot: For every Pennsylvania Derby that plays to form (To Honor and Serve, Will Take Charge), there are as many if not more screwball winners of this race too (Timber Reserve, Handsome Mike).  With BAYERN and C J’s AWESOME there should be a contested pace at best, honest pace at worst.  #6 CLASSIC GIACNROLL  (15/1) is our screwball longshot to watch pick in this year’s PA Derby. He’s the other in the field who has a win over the Parx dirt, two of them in fact.  Five of six in the money over the local dirt, he was second in the local prep last out.  He made his move in the stretch, and passed everyone except wide-rallying PROTONICO when there were fast upfront fractions in the PA Derby prep.  With the aforemnetioned honest pace, he should get a worthwhile target. Two back, he was fourth in the West Virginia Derby (with the 1-2 finishers seeing the starter here too).  Local rider Kendrick Carmouche re-accepts the mount.  Even though he’s a local, the price should be square thanks to the Chromies. –PM

Stakes preview authors are denoted above by initials, PM for Paul Mazur and NN for Nicolle Neulist.

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