This Saturday is the biggest day of the year at Parx: Pennsylvania Derby Day. The card features three graded stakes for the sophomore set, including two for seven-figure purses. Those seven-figure races, the GII Pennsylvania Derby for open company and the GI Cotillion for fillies, drew some of the leading lights of the sophomore division: Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, Preakness winner Exaggerator, Kentucky Oaks winner Cathryn Sophia, and the horse so many speculate could beat them all: Songbird.
This week, Picks and Ponderings previews all three graded stakes on the card. In addition to that pair of million-dollar route races, we also look at the Grade III Gallant Bob Stakes, which drew a full and eclectic field of twelve sophomore sprinters.
These races, just like all races at Parx, are streamed for free on the Parx website.
Race 9: Gallant Bob Stakes (GIII), three-year-olds, six furlongs on the dirt, post time 4:14pm 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 25th edition, as it was not run in 1983 or from 1987-1998. The race first gained a grade in 2013, and it retains its GIII status this year.
We apologise: we didn’t pick anyone who, like last year’s Gallant Bob winner Trouble Kid, has been available for a $15,000 tag.
However, we will back someone who was claimed for the princely sum of $16,000 earlier this year: NAVY HYMN. NAVY HYMN ships out of California for the first time to run here. But, he has competitive speeds and the right running style to make an impact. He will be forwardly placed, often a positive sign at Parx on a big day. Though he needs to be forward, he has the early pace to get that spot, and he has the gameness to be on a contested pace and come out with the best of it. NAVY HYMN’s 10-6-3-0 record implies that he loves to win horse races, and he is a perfect three-for-three going a flat six furlongs on dirt. Though he has not shipped out of California yet, he has wins at both Santa Anita and Del Mar, and has also hit the board at Los Alamitos. This displays an ability to transfer his form to different courses. Though this will be his first try in graded company, NAVY HYMN has form against older — always a positive sign when stepping back against straight sophomores. All in all, he should be a fair price, and has what he needs to contend.
NOHOLDINGBACK BEAR has proven he can contend with this class of horse, having hit the board in graded company in his last two starts. That includes a last-out third behind Drefong in the King’s Bishop (GI). Though his last three races have been extended sprints, NOHOLDINGBACK BEAR has shown fine form in five starts (at four different tracks!) going six furlongs: three wins, two seconds. NOHOLDINGBACK BEAR also has a solid running style for this: he will be forward, but has no issues sitting a length or two off the pace and making a run. Assuming he can take to the famously quirky Parx surface, it would be no surprise to see NOHOLDINGBACK BEAR notch this and keep marching on toward the Breeders’ Cup.
Should speed fail to hold, COUNTERFORCE could very well be the one who picks up the pieces. His last two starts have been disappointing, but both of those came at extended sprint distances. Here, COUNTERFORCE cuts back to a flat six furlongs, a distance at which he has finished in the exacta in all four tries. He has gotten a freshening since the Amsterdam (GII) almost two months ago, something from which trainer Steve Asmussen tends to bring horses back quite well. On class and distance, this looks a solid spot for COUNTERFORCE to get back on the rails; barring a monster speed bias, he should be able to snag a share underneath at the very least.
#3 NAVY HYMN (5/1)
#4 NOHOLDINGBACK BEAR (5/2)
#5 COUNTERFORCE (8/1)
Longshot: #11 KLINGON WARRIOR (20/1) is the lightest-raced runner in the field, with only two starts under his belt. But, both have been wins: a maiden victory in July of 2015, and an allowance win in July of 2016. Whether KLINGON WARRIOR can handle the surface at Parx is a known quantity; both his career starts have come over the oval. Class is the question, since the toughest group he has faced to date was a straight three-year-old one-other-than group at Parx. But, he did it the right way: a few lengths off early, a middle move, and holding nicely. He keeps rider C. C. Lopez from that start. Here KLINGON WARRIOR comes second off that long lay, and with a pair of local bullet works leading into this start, he could be the lightly raced spoiler coming into form at the right time.
Race 10: Cotillion Stakes (GI), three-year-old fillies, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 4:55pm 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 both Grade I status and a million dollar purse. Its purse remains a million dollars to this day. 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), My Miss Aurelia (2012), and Untapable (2014).
Havre de Grace, bearing the Fox Hill Farm silks, holds on to win the 2010 Cotillion Stakes. SONGBIRD will attempt to carry the same silks home in this year’s Cotillion.
This year’s Cotillion drew a field of just six. But, within those six are three of the true heavyweights of the sophomore filly division: the still-perfect SONGBIRD, Kentucky Oaks (GI) winner CATHRYN SOPHIA, and Acorn (GI) winner CARINA MIA. LAND OVER SEA, who completed the exacta in the Oaks, also shows up, along with Parx locals DISCO ROSE and QUEENA ESTHER.
SONGBIRD has done nothing wrong so far. She is a perfect ten-for-ten, including a nine-furlong win in the Coaching Club American Oaks (GI) and a ten-furlong victory in the Alabama (GI). That pair of races, along with her Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (GI) win at Keeneland last year, show she can ship outside of California. SONGBIRD has speed, which she is not afraid to use. SONGBIRD can survive a speed duel, or turn away a threatening-looking bid (like CARINA MIA set off in the Coaching Clube American Oaks). And, she can sit kindly just a bit off the pace until Mike Smith pushes the button. She is fast, classy, and consistent.
SONGBIRD has a lot to like, and this space can’t blame the folks who just use her as a free space in the multi-race bets and move on. Particularly if the track is playing heavily speed-biased on the big day, that strategy makes a lot of sense.
But, if the track is playing even slightly fairly? This space is going to take a shot with the one major dirt route three-year-old with whom SONGBIRD has not yet had her sparring match: Kentucky Oaks winner CATHRYN SOPHIA. Though her record is not unblemished like SONGBIRD’s is, she does have six wins and two thirds in eight starts. She consistently shows up and wins horse races. As a juvenile she overwhelmed her foes on the front end, but at three she has shown she can rate dependably. She has a nine-furlong victory in the Kentucky Oaks. And, in addition to her form and class? The Parx surface can be a bit love-it-or-hate-it, and CATHRYN SOPHIA has already notched a pair of victories at Parx. 1/5 or even 2/5 on SONGBIRD is short when you can get the Oaks winner on her home course for several times that price.
Among the rest of the field? QUEENA ESTHER and DISCO ROSE are Parx locals, but probably too slow to do much here. CARINA MIA deserves a somewhat longer look if the track is playing heavily for speed, but is still questionable going two turns against the best. With any fairness in the track, LAND OVER SEA appeals a bit more for the minor awards. LAND OVER SEA tried turf against the best in the Belmont Oaks (GI) last out, and faltered. But, she racked up a pile of “second to SONGBIRD” medals out west, and finished second behind CATHRYN SOPHIA in the Kentucky Oaks going a mile and an eighth. In this field of six, she is the only one without any proven penchant for being up front. This could mean she gets an honest pace. Winning against the likes of CATHRYN SOPHIA and SONGBIRD may be too much to ask, but LAND OVER SEA can certainly get a mile and an eighth, and fires consistently enough to rate for a share underneath here.
#2 CATHRYN SOPHIA (5/2)
#5 SONGBIRD (1/2)
#4 LAND OVER SEA (10/1)
Longshot: We tried to find the longshot writer, but they gave us some Dortmund-level side-eye for suggesting they make a case for either DISCO ROSE or QUEENA ESTHER. You win today, longshot writer.
Race 11: Pennsylvania Derby (GII), three-year-olds, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 5:45pm EDT
This year marks the 37th running of the Pennsylvania Derby, the flagship race of the Parx meet. The race had a million-dollar purse starting in 2007, but became even richer this year thanks to purse incentives: since two Triple Crown race winners are making the trip, the twelve sophomores will compete for a share of $1,250,000. 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.
This year’s race drew a pair of three-year-old Classic winners: Kentucky Derby winner NYQUIST and Preakness winner EXAGGERATOR. History weighs against both: so far, no winner of a Triple Crown race has won the Pennsylvania Derby later that year. The race has produced a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner in Bayern (2014), who used the Pennsylvania Derby as his final prep. The Pennsylvania Derby also has an Illinois-bred link: 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.
Bayern dominates the 2014 Pennsylvania Derby.
So far, the odds are that the weather will be clear on Saturday.
No, this is not an intro for “why not to bet EXAGGERATOR”. We’ll get to him in a bit, and he merits a long look. Instead, this is an intro for why to play GUN RUNNER. In nine starts, his only truly disappointing starts have been the Haskell and the Kentucky Jockey Club: his two starts on slop. In his only try going nine furlongs over a dry track, he posted a commanding victory in the Louisiana Derby (GII). He has speed, and can keep on gamely even if he ends up too close to a fast pace; think back to his third in the Derby. It was a monster effort given how close he was to Danzing Candy. But, he can also sit farther off the pace: think back to his Risen Star (GII), or even to his third in the Travers (GI). GUN RUNNER stayed engaged, and does not stand to face another Arrogate here. That ability may come in handy with a lot of speed in this field. Finally, his regular rider Florent Geroux has continued his hot riding even after the end of Kentucky Downs — and he can take his form to Parx, as evidenced by his Cotillion win with I’m a Chatterbox last year. All in all, GUN RUNNER looks a solid horse, and he should be a fair price.
As long as the track is playing fairly, EXAGGERATOR does deserve a long look here. He should get no shortage of pace to chase here: CUPID needs to be on the front, and the likes of AWESOME SLEW, HIT IT ONCE MORE, and even CONNECT have shown real front-end affinity. Even some of the class horses, NYQUIST and GUN RUNNER, can be a bit keen. There will almost certainly be an honest clip, making it perfect for EXAGGERATOR to settle off the pace, make his long and sustained run, and unleash a big rally. He does not stand to get a wet track here. But, does that matter? Probably not. He rallied over a fast track in the Kentucky Derby, and even if that brief rain before the race may have helped his case there, he also found a rally over fast dirt in the San Felipe (GII). Though it only proved enough for third, that day leader Danzing Candy was uncontested most of the way. That does not stand to be the case here, and seeing EXAGGERATOR prove the “just a mudder” crowd wrong today is well within the realm of possibility.
Finally, we get to NYQUIST. He got a break after a disappointing third in the Preakness, and then another two months off after a fourth-place finish behind EXAGGERATOR (and SUNNY RIDGE) in the Haskell. Both of those times, he got embroiled in speed duels of…questionable wisdom. Also, both of those times he raced over an off track. With a dry track here, and with back form to suggest he can sit off the pace, it would be no surprise to see him bounce back from his troubles in his last two starts. Doug O’Neill has stated this week that his strategy is to keep NYQUIST off the pace. Between all the speed in the race on paper and NYQUIST’s back off-pace form, O’Neill’s assertion passes the smell test. In short? NYQUIST is a defensive use, since a return to his best makes him a tough competitor here.
#7 GUN RUNNER (6/1)
#2 EXAGGERATOR (9/2)
#9 NYQUIST (5/2)
Longshot: #10 SUNNY RIDGE (12/1) will have to bring his best race to win here, but he could get a share of this on pure grit. He can keep the lead in his sights, but has no need to be right on it — excellent with speedy sorts like CUPID and AWESOME SLEW and HIT IT ONCE MORE in the field. Once he does decide to engage the frontrunners, SUNNY RIDGE is as gritty as they come. SUNNY RIDGE’s connections also inspire confidence. Though rider Joe Bravo has never ridden Sunny Ridge before, he is the kind of rider who can take a mount in just about any big race and get the best of him, and he has hit the board in five of seven starts when he has popped up at Parx this meet. Trainer Jason Servis has similar strength: a 30% win rate with shippers, and five wins (and eight money finishes) out of 12 starts this meet at Parx. They know what they are doing, and it would be no surprise to see them get the best out of SUNNY RIDGE here at a nice price.
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