2015 Pennsylvania Derby Day Stakes Preview

The latest handicapping whistlestop for Picks & Ponderings takes us to Philadelphia and to Parx Racing.  Once again, two million dollar races go back-to-back on the program at Parx as their Fall Festival, and the year as a whole, reaches its high point.  The two million dollar races are for the three-year-olds in the G1 Cotillion and G2 Pennsylvania Derby.  Supporting features on the schedule are the G3 Gallant Bob for sophomore sprinters, the Alphabet Soup for state-bred turfers, and the Bayern Stakes for elders going two turns on the dirt.

The Pennsylvania Derby Day card, as with any and all racing days at Parx Racing, can be seen through a free live stream on the Parx Racing website; and also is available through the free Horse Races Now app. In the (local to Parx Racing) Philadelphia area, Comcast Sportsnet will also provide TV Coverage from 4:30pm to 6:00 pm ET.  The live TV coverage is slated to include the Gallant Bob, Cotillion, and Pennsylvania Derby.  A preview show of these races airs the night before (Friday Sept. 18) also on Philadelphia-area Comcast Sportsnet from 6:00 to 6:30 pm ET.

Stakes preview authors are denoted above by initials, PM for Paul Mazur and NN for Nicolle Neulist. Selections in the Alphabet Soup Handicap are made “turf only”. All races are scheduled for Saturday September 19.

Edited September 19 for the scratch of GIMME DA LUTE from the Pennsylvania Derby.

Parx Racing — Race 6 — Alphabet Soup Handicap — One and one-sixteenth miles on Turf — post time 3:00 pm ET.

This race takes its name not from the Scrabble addict’s favourite accompaniment to grilled cheese, but from the only Pennsylvania-bred to have won the Breeders’ Cup Classic so far.  He won this big race at Woodbine in 1996 as a 19/1 shot — on a day when odds-on Cigar proved comparable, vincible, and third beaten a head by the Pennsylvania-bred grey.  The distance suits, as Alphabet Soup did his best work going two turns, although the placement of the race in his honour on turf is interesting.  Despite being by turf star Cozzene, Alphabet Soup only started three times on grass, with his best finish being second beaten a neck in the Volante Handicap (GII) at Santa Anita.  He also never raced in Pennsylvania; he spent his career based in California with trainer David Hofmans.  In recent years, the race has been ROADHOG’s world: he won in 2010 and 2013, came in second in 2012 and 2014, and returns for a sixth crack at the Alphabet Soup this year.  However, ROADHOG inherited the torch from Auction Watch, a son of Belong to Me who won the Alphabet Soup in both 2008 and 2009.

This $100,000 race seems less a question of finding who looks objectively attractive than finding who has the fewest red flags.  After beating open stakes company in the Mystic Lake Mile, PUMPKIN RUMBLE was originally in rumblings for the Arlington Million, then entered the More Than Ready Mile, then scratched in favour of this Pennsylvania-bred spot.  He’ll take money, and his form is not so good that short odds keep him attractive against this bunch.  FORWARD THINKER keeps taking money against Pennsylvania-bred company, possibly on the name of his trainer (Graham Motion), but has not been closing the deal.  ROADHOG has shown up so many times in the Alphabet Soup, but has not actually won a race since a Pennsylvania-bred allowance at Presque Isle over a year ago.  He is a must for undersides, but holds little interest for the top spot.

UNCLE DAVE looks single-worthy here.  The race did not draw any true one-way speed, and not a lot of speed in general.  The front-end possibilities are UNCLE DAVE, FORWARD THINKER, and ATHELSTANE, and UNCLE DAVE is the speed of the speed if he wants to send.   Even if he does not, he runs well from a pressing spot or from a few lengths back, as well, giving him options.  He has hit the board in all three starts over the Parx turf, and should be fit and ready on the cutback from an emphatic open allowance-optional win at a mile and an eighth last out.  His connections have also been tearing it up at Parx this meet: trainer Marcus Zulueta has a 31% win rate (41-133) on the meet, and rider Jorge Vargas, Jr. has a 21% strike rate (70-337).  Vargas has been aboard UNCLE DAVE for his last three starts, as well, showing a rapport.  The form, connections, and affinity for the grounds all point to UNCLE DAVE, particularly in a field in which so many others have so many questions.

BEYOND SMART is probably best over the Presque Isle Tapeta, but also has some back turf form to recommend him.  He won his only start over the Parx grass, beating sophomore state-breds at this same distance in last year’s Crowd Pleaser Handicap.  Pacewise, BEYOND SMART has good versatility; he is an off-pace type, but can succeed from up close or well off early, as the flow of the race dictates.  If he can find as good a form on turf as he has shown on the Tapeta through the summer, BEYOND SMART could be UNCLE DAVE’s most imposing competition.  NOT GOLIATH also interests here.  He comes in third off the ship overseas; though this one is Pennsylvania-bred, he started his career in France.  He had two sprint wins there, one on turf and one on all-weather.  He has stretched to two turns for both of his starts stateside, having racked up a pair of fourth-place finishes.  Both of those came against open N2X allowance-optional company; he goes into restricted Pennsylvania-bred company for the first time here.  He stands to improve third off the lay, given trainer Jason Servis’s 26% strike rate third off the lay; his +$0.87 ROI third off makes him attractive, too.  Both of those fourth-place finishes also came from well off the pace; the switch to blinkers-on could keep NOT GOLIATH a bit closer to the pace, and Servis’s 21% win rate with first-time blinkers suggests that he knows what he is doing here.

Selections:

#5 UNCLE DAVE (3/1)

#1A BEYOND SMART (4/1)

#8 NOT GOLIATH (6/1)

Longshot:  #4 WILLY D’ROCKET (10/1) keeps getting ignored by the betting public, and he keeps outrunning his odds.  Last out he went off at 13/1 in a state-bred stakes at this distance at Penn National, and finished second beaten only half a length by the multiple graded stakes placed Page McKenney.  He has a solid enough 10-3-2-1 career line going this distance, and also has a win over the Parx grass last year.  The biggest question is pace, since WILLY D’ROCKET is a midpack type who may not have a lot to rally into here, but he has shown sharp enough late pace and good enough ability to rally into a moderate pace to make him interesting, assuming the public sleeps on him yet again.  — NN

Parx Racing — Race 7 — Bayern Stakes — One and one-sixteenth miles on Dirt — post time 3:32 pm ET.

Rare it is to see a stakes race whose namesake is still in training, particularly since the namesake horse would be eligible for the conditions.  And yet, we have this: a two-turn dirt races for ages three and up, named after the winner of last year’s Pennsylvania Derby.  Still, there’s a certain synergy between this and the Alphabet Soup: as the previous race was named after the only Pennsylvania-bred to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Bayern Stakes for purse of one hundred fifty thousand dollars is named after the only horse so far to parlay a Pennsylvania Derby win into a win in the Classic.  Bayern has struggled this year, and perhaps would appreciate a class drop to his namesake race.  But, he remains in training in California, pointing toward the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita.


Bayern romps in the 2014 Pennsylvania Derby.

Five-year-old FREESTYLER comes into this race in the form of his life.  He has ten career wins; six have come in his last eight starts.  The only off-board finish during that span was his one turf try at Tampa, and the only other race he did not win was the Monmouth Cup (GII), in which he finished a best-of-the-rest third behind two Monmouth-loving horses who are better than anyone he faces here: Bradester and Valid.  From a numbers standpoint, he has two wins in two starts at Parx, a 6-4-0-2 line at the distance of this race, and competitive speed figures.  From a race shape standpoint, FREESTYLER should be able to sit off as the likes of GROUND TRANSPORT and MARKET BLASTER set the pace.  His recent margins of victory (half a length, half a length, a neck, a head, a nose) suggest he is a game horse who knows when to make a move and knows where the wire is.

Rail-drawn STREET BABE is another who should be able to stalk off the front-end fireworks and make a move.  He had a strong winter, but the wind came out of his sails a bit through the spring and early summer.  Still, after a freshening, his last-out allowance win at the Spa suggests he is back in form.  That came at nine furlongs; STREET BABE should be fit on the cutback, and he has a win and a second in two tries at a mile and a sixteenth.  ENCRYPTION comes here first off the layoff, after a disappointing spring.  That time off may be the best thing for him, as ENCRYPTION has a sharp worktab, and has fired big first off of a lay before.  His stalking style should suit the race yet give him an out even if the track is souped up for speed on the big race day.  Regular rider Paco Lopez gets back in the irons, and though ENCRYPTION has never raced at Parx, Lopez has eight wins and sixteen more on-the-board finishes on the Parx course this meet.  The 10/1 morning line on ENCRYPTION seems like wishful thinking, but even if he settles down around 6/1, he has real appeal here.

CLASSIC GIACNROLL is one other who is coming into this race in the right form.  He does his best work at Parx, but both his 15-3-7-0 line at Parx and his 11-1-5-1 line at the distance of the Bayern Stakes tell a story.  His running lines support it, too: second by 3/4 length, second by a neck, second by a neck, second by a nose.  As game as FREESTYLER is in winning those close finishes, CLASSIC GIACNROLL is the opposite.  He often ends up in fields where he is competitive, and he is never quite game enough to finish the job.  Backwheel him, key him underneath, but don’t waste the money on top.

Selections:

#2 FREESTYLER (2/1)

#1 STREET BABE (3/1)

#7 ENCRYPTION (10/1)

Longshot: If you can use the terms “hard-knocking” or “stalwart” about a four-year-old, you can certainly do so in reference to Pennsylvania-bred #5 GRASSHOPPIN (10/1).  He has run 21 times already, with 19 of those starts having come over the Parx main.  His first foray away from Parx stacks up well given the class of this race — it was a fourth-place finish in the Monmouth Cup (GII), just a length behind FREESTYLER.  His only other start away from Parx can be tossed, as it was a turf try at Penn National.  Last out, in a state-bred stakes over this course and distance, he finished third beaten just a neck for all of it, behind Duff and Page McKenney.  His best speed figures compete well with this crowd, and even though he often sends to the front, he can run well from a pressing or even stalking spot as well.  That gives him some kind of shot with the likely duel between GROUND TRANSPORT and MARKET BLASTER.  GRASSHOPPIN will have to bring his best to win this, but his form lines make him the Live Local.  — NN

Parx Racing — Race 8 — G3 Gallant Bob Stakes — Six Furlongs on Dirt — post time 4:05 pm ET.

Restricted to three-year-old sprinters, this race honors Gallant Bob, the Champion Sprinter of 1975. In the days when Parx when known as Keystone, Gallant Bob placed in graded stakes from ages two to five and as a sophomore nailed down his Eclipse hardware.  Though based in Philly, he traveled all around the mid-Atlantic during his career and even took down a sprint stakes at Arlington as a sophomore.  In its twenty-fifth running (not run in 1983 or 1987-98), this race was elevated to graded status in 2013.  The Grade Three $300,000 Gallant Bob Stakes has Thunderello (2002), who would be the Breeders’ Cup Sprint runner-up that year, as perhaps its most notable winner.

The past performances this space use note that HEBBRONVILLE is moving up in class from the last start and that such class rise is a negative sign. Sure, he’s moving in class up to the stakes level, but he’s going back into graded stakes company. Two back HEBBRONVILLE annexed the G3 Jersey Shore Stakes at Monmouth. More proven in Graded Stakes company than the point lets on, he threw a clunker on Preakness Day in the Chick Lang, was pointed to Ellis Park (the surprising fertile ground of sprinters!) and cleared an N2X condition there against elders. Back in his own age group he dispatched the G3 Jersey Shore field rallying off the pace and pressing with a swing-wide rally at Parx. The Monmouth first quarter split is a bit misleading – their long run-up makes the early times magnified – and HEBBRONVILLE works in this field chasing down one-way speeds TROUBLE KID (who’s in too deep) and GRAND BILI (who may have shown he needs to take his Gulfstream oval with him). As swoop-wide winners work well at Parx, his outer draw is a plus. Plus he used that swoop-wide tactic to beat an open allowance field in this race’s de facto local prep. Joe Bravo takes the controls on HEBBRONVILLE for Lynn Whiting. The G3 Sam F. Davis at a mile and a sixteenth back in the spring was likely too much too far for CATALINA RED. He got a van ride home that afternoon and went on vacation. He returned by dispatching Florida-breds in a small Florida-bred stakes going seven panels at Gulfstream. CATALINA RED showed some nice form going one turn at Tampa Bay in the winter and would be a force if he can run back to that. Eliminating the too-far Davis leaves a horse that’s never been off the podium going one turn in six career outs. Some regular training center works after the Florida-bred stakes triumph could provide peace of mind he won’t bounce. G1 King’s Bishop runner-up LIMOUSINE LIBERAL was dismissed by the public at 16-1 and completed the all Pea-Patch exacta in that Travers Day sophomore sprint. He takes a step down to G3 company after pressing from second and running evenly but unable to reel in Runhappy last out at the Spa. Three-for-three in money in his career, he fired off a bullet Keeneland work in preparation for this race – and there was a bullet on the tab before he was second at the Spa. He dials back to six furlongs in the Gallant Bob.

Selections:

#6 HEBBRONVILLE (5/1)

#5 CATALINA RED (6/1)

#3 LIMOUSINE LIBERAL (5/2)

Longshot: A reporter asked trainer Jim DiVito what he’d do with #2 RECOUNT (8/1) after he won the Bruce D. Memorial Stakes, a fifty-grand open stakes at Arlington International on Million Day. The exact words were “to try something different”, as he had figuratively run himself out of races on the Chicago circuit. The intrepid reporter put a bug into DiVito’s ear to look at the G3 Gallant Bob. For RECOUNT the figures make sense if you eliminate the Million Day race. Even though it was a workmanlike effort, there were so few polytrack races on the day (and it was contested in heat) that the surface may have been slower or more tiring (in essence, deflating the figure) that the paper pages show. Back figures in the Cammack Handicap against Illinois-bred elders or at Prairie or Hawthorne compare well. Able to lead or stalk from close range, he also dials back to a six furlong distance he won handily at first off the lay at Hawthorne – a track whose outside flow can be a lot like Parx. The reporter’s (Disclaimer: It was me.) initial bug could blossom from its cocoon. –PM

Parx Racing — Race 9 — G1 Cotillion Stakes — One and one-sixteenth miles on Dirt — post time 4:50 pm ET.

Parx Racing is the current name, but the Big Box on Street Road has had a few names through the years. It started as Keystone Race Track in 1974.  Keystone become Philadelphia Park in 1984. Philadelphia Park was ousted as the name in 2010 and replaced with Parx Racing.  The $1,000,000 Cotillion Stakes predates Keystone as it traces to a nearby facility – Liberty Bell.  That facility held the first Cotillion in 1969, and the Cotillion moved to Keystone (and then to Philadelphia Park and Parx) thereafter.  Typically in the past contested as a fall race in early October, it’s the only Grade One race in the Keystone State and has been a Grade One since 2012.  The first Cotillion winner, Shuvee (1969) went on to the Hall of Fame.  Parx stakes nameplate and local Jostle (2000) took down a Cotillion.  Ashado (2004) and Untapable (2014) are Cotillion heroines that went on to be crowned champion sophomore fillies.


Untapable scores in the 2014 Cotillion on the way to her championship season.

Perhaps this is the race that I’M A CHATTERBOX claims the leadership that no one wants in the three-year-old filly division.  It seemed as though she would when entered last time in the ten-furlong G1 Alabama up at the Spa.  But I’M A CHATTERBOX didn’t get the cleanest of breaks thanks to KEEN PAULINE veering a bit, and it left EMBELLISH THE LACE to lead the field all the way around.  This time around the distance shortens to eight and a half furlongs and there appears to more pace signed on through CALAMITY KATE and stretchout DESERT VALLEY.  Perhaps it follows that the free lunch from last time may not be so free.  The shorter distance and pace presences play into the hands of I’M A CHATTERBOX.  First across but placed second at nine panels two back, she cuts back to this mile and a sixteenth while drawing a nice mid-pack post.  Florent Geroux can take the lead if no one wants it, or sit back in an outside position and stalk.  As Parx can be a dead-rail track, it’s an opportune situation. Demand a fair price on the Larry Jones trainee because you wonder if some new face will jump and win because that’s how these three-year-old fillies roll.  While this space takes a negative stance on EMBELLISH THE LACE, it takes a positive one on PANGBURN.  Both are Tony Dutrow trainees – so you get increased odds on the less heralded half of the uncoupled trainer entry gambit.  PANGBURN kicked around on the midwest circuit of “B” Oaks races and ran a credible second to G3 winner (and eventual fourth in the G1 Ballerina) Sarah Sis three back.  Perhaps she wants a dry dirt track and we can forgive her spinning her wheels in the mud in the Indiana Oaks.  Taken back East with a new trainer, she bested N2X elders at the Spa last out with a two-path trip on the turns.  She ships down for this seven figure Grade One.  Another shipper – of the west coast persuasion – is TARA’S TANGO.  Though she’s got only five starts on her docket, all five starts have seen top two finishes.  She was beaten in a photo two back to a next out G3 winner and past G1 winner in Stellar Wind.  At a two-turn mile she professionally cleared the N1X condition in her last start.  TARA’S TANGO has figures that compare to the others favorably.  The rub is that she’s the second best in a California division that tapers off beyond her, so you wonder what’s behind her.

Selections:

#8 I’M A CHATTERBOX (3/1)

#6 PANGBURN (12/1)

#1 TARA’S TANGO (8/1)

Longshot: Those who see pace making the race and seeing someone challenging EMBELLISH THE LACE on the front end will likely trend towards PEACE AND WAR, who closed to win the G1 Alcibiades at two.  But PEACE AND WAR caught an outside-favoring track in her last winning start and caught Lovely Maria past her peak when hitting the podium last out in the G3 Delaware Oaks.  This space does think that with an honest pace at worst (confirmed front-runners, full field), a closer is a good play.  The lean instead is to #4 STROKE PLAY (20/1). While STROKE PLAY is a local that appears in waters too deep, that last try in stakes company over at Delaware did see her making an even rally.  But we’re at Parx, not Delaware, and STROKE PLAY has a nifty four start, three win and a third record here.  Her only loss over the Parx strip was early in the year in a small stakes on Kentucky Derby Day, and the second place finisher that day was By The Moon – who after that start nearly won the Acorn at 30/1.  She’s climbed the allowance ladder and while ambitiously stepping into a Grade One, she could come along for a piece if the pace turns wicked on the front.  –PM

Parx Racing — Race 10 — G2 Pennsylvania Derby — One and one-eighth miles on Dirt — post time 5:45 pm ET.

This year marks the 36th running of the Pennsylvania Derby, one of the two richest races (the other is the Cotillion run immediately before) of the Parx meet.  This year’s renewal offers a million-dollar purse, and has since 2007.  Though the name of the racetrack has changed from Keystone Race Track to Philadelphia Park to Parx Racing over the last three and a half decades, the Pennsylvania Derby has remained a refreshing constant: nine furlongs on the dirt for three-year-olds.  Of most local interest among Pennsylvania Derby winners was the last Illinois-bred to see the starter in the Kentucky Derby: Western Playboy.  Though the Harvey Vanier trainee would hit the board in graded stakes company all the way into his five-year-old year, the 1989 Pennsylvania Derby would prove to be Western Playboy’s third and final graded stakes win.  In the last two years, it has proven a live Breeders’ Cup Classic prep.  Last year’s winner, Bayern, won the Classic; 2013 winner Will Take Charge missed by just a nose to Mucho Macho Man.  Even the horse who held off Will Take Charge had a link to this race.  Though Mucho Macho Man never won the Pennsylvania Derby, sire Macho Uno did in 2001.


Will Take Charge catches Moreno to win the 2013 Pennsylvania Derby.

This is a race about questions.  Can GIMME DA LUTE ship?  (Reply hazy, try again.  No, seriously, try again.  He scratched.)  Did the Travers take something out of FROSTED?  (As I see it, yes.)  Is FROSTED really more of an undersides type against this set?  (Most likely.)  Can UPSTART get nine furlongs?  (Don’t count on it.)  Will MR. Z pull a MR. Z?  (Outlook good.)

With so much uncertainty, a solid type at a square price appeals more than ever.  Enter ISLAND TOWN.  He was a latecomer to the three-year-old scene; he won on Derby Day, but in an undercard allowance in which he rallied to nail Roll Tide Roll and Illinois-bred Lewys Vaporizer.  A next-out win in the Matt Winn (GIII) made it three lifetime wins, all over the Churchill strip.  He did not love the slop in the Indiana Derby, but he has since taken his form on the road. He absolutely destroyed the field in the Smarty Jones (GIII) — the local prep to the Pennsylvania Derby.  The proven ability to run well at Parx is a plus here, given the track’s love-it-or-hate-it quality.  Pacewise, he has strong versatility: he can go wire-to-wire, stalk the pace, or rally from the back of the pack.  Expect a stalking trip here, as Parx has a bit of a reputation for rewarding forward placements on big race days, though the likes of MR. Z and BATTLE MIDWAY could possibly make things feisty right on the front end.  ISLAND TOWN is fast, versatile, and likely to go off at a price against this set.

MADEFROMLUCKY was a cut below the Triple Crown horses this year, but he does not need to be that calibre in order to make a dent in the Pennsylvania Derby this year.  MADEFROMLUCKY is a solid B-Derby horse — a horse who has been won four times at three different tracks, and won three times at a mile and an eighth.  The only time he did not cross the wire first at this distance was in the Arkansas Derby; even though he was fourth beaten nine lengths by American Pharoah that day, he was still only a length out of second.  He has been rested since winning the West Virginia Derby (GII) a month and a half ago, but has a solid worktab leading into this race.  He fits this race like a glove, and as long as he handles the Parx surface well, he should be running at the speedy types in time to make an impact.  The scratch of GIMME DA LUTE benefits MR. Z more than anyone here.  He looked the speed of the speed all along, and without GIMME DA LUTE, his front-end position looks solid.  BATTLE MIDWAY could be a gadfly, but he showed in both of his wins (his maiden win as well as the Ohio Derby) that when he puts his mind to it, he can slug it out and win a fight.  Of course, MR. Z is not the most consistent horse out there on the win end, but he is definitely fast enough for this bunch, and his 17-2-5-4 career line shows an ability to keep hitting the board despite his sometimes crazy antics.  Last out is a toss; he tried sprinting, and though he is speedy for a router, he had no chance to contend for his best spot given the freakish sprint speed of Runhappy.  MR. Z should improve on the stretch back out to a route here, and he moves up considerably if Parx plays as well for speed on Pennsylvania Derby day as it did last year.

Selections:

#2 ISLAND TOWN (10/1)

#5 MADEFROMLUCKY (4/1)

#10 MR. Z (10/1)

Longshot: Thanks to his owner’s tendency to flutter a buck or two on his horses, #1 WAR STORY (20/1) may go off at a few points lower than his morning line.  However, he still has a few points in his favour as a candidate for the exotics.  Though he has done his best work closing, he can also stalk the pace, giving him some kind of versatility if it turns out after a few races that Parx has become a drag strip.  He has some speed figures that stack up well enough with this competition, and he finished the nine-furlong West Virginia Derby full of run.  WAR STORY is the type of horse who just seems to keep going on pluck alone.  With two third-place finishes in his two previous tries at the distance, both in graded stakes company, you could do far worse than WAR STORY for an exotics bomb.  — NN

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