Race of the Week: Pennsylvania Derby (Parx), By Scott Shapiro

Race of Week: Pennsylvania Derby (Parx Racing & Casino)

 

 

Saturday marks the biggest day in recent memory for horse racing in the state of Pennsylvania.  Formerly known as Philadelphia Park, Parx Racing and Casino is ready to host two of the biggest three-year old events on the 2014-racing calendar. The Grade I Cotillion Stakes for fillies will be run as Race 11 on the card and feature Steve Asmussen’s star filly Untapable, amongst other talented young ladies. Following the Cotillion will be the $1-million Grade II Pennsylvania Derby for three-year olds starring Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome.  The massive day of racing should help the racing world get that much closer to deciding on Eclipse Award winners, as well as provide a tremendous day of thrills and entertainment for the Philadelphia metropolitan area.

The Pennsylvania Derby was first held in 1979 as a replacement for the Jersey Derby held annually at Garden State Park. An unfortunate fire destroyed the New Jersey based venue’s original grandstand in 1978, forcing the racing industry to find an ample replacement for the Memorial Day festivities. The proximity of Bensalem, Pennsylvania, to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, made Philadelphia Park the obvious alternative. The race was held in late May until 1990 when they decided to move it back a few months until Labor Day weekend. It would stay at the beginning of September for two decades before the board made the strategic decision of pushing the state’s biggest day of racing back to the finalSaturday of September where it is held today.  This would now allow the perfect amount of time for top horses to use Pennsylvania Derby Day races as preps for the Breeders’ Cup.  Based on the presence of Will Take Charge and Moreno in last year’s event and the star studded 2014 field, it appears the plan has worked well.

The mile and an eighth race over the Parx main track has definitely elevated in prestige since the purse has been raised, but it still grew its fair share of talent over the first several years.  Smarten and Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens won the inaugural version of the Pennsylvania Derby in 1979 and was followed during the first decade by such equine greats as Dixieland Band, Skip Trial, Broad Brush, and Afleet.  In one of the events greatest moments to date, Preakness Stakes’ winner Summer Squall made the trip to the Philly area in 1990 and left victorious under the handling of Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day.

Unfortunately, after the appearance of Summer Squall, the race took on somewhat of a lesser role in the national three-year old picture, but it still provided a number of thrilling editions.  Included amongst these is the 1991 performance by Maryland bred Valley Crossing. The son of Private Account made a thrilling last to first run at 78-1 to take down the lion’s share of the  $150,000 purse for trainer Dickie Small. Hopelessly out of the race through the first half-mile, Valley Crossing would do his best running late and shock the Philadelphia Park crowd paying a massive $158.60 to win.

The 1991 Pennsylvania Derby also happened to be the one and only version I have seen live.  I was a junior in high school and a regular Saturday attendee of Philadelphia Park at the time. After the race, I remember looking to my friends wondering which colt had just run down the entire field, but everyone was equally puzzled by the result. My money had been on Arrowtown who finished fourth. Most of my friends had their loot on odds-on favorite Key Contender who finished sixth.  Needless to say the lines at the pari-mutuel windows were non-existent following the massive upset. Andrea Seefeldt was the rider of Valley Crossing that day making the moment even more special. She was the first female jockey to win the event. It was a grand day of racing despite leaving with empty pockets. I learned that day to never count any runner out.

The elevation of the status to Grade II in 2004 as well as the tremendous rise in purse money has made the most recent versions of the Pennsylvania Derby better than ever.  Bill Mott star To Honor and Serve took the event in stakes record time in 2011 and Handsome Mike would follow for J. Paul Reddam in 2012. Last year’s attraction of the top two finishers from Saratoga’s Travers Stakes and the thrilling victory by Will Take Charge has the event at the peak of its existence entering Saturday’s big day. This year is certain to take it to another level.

The main star of Saturday’s show at Parx Racing and Casino is the ever-popular California Chrome. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner enters Saturday off a lengthy layoff. In fact, the son of Lucky Pulpit has not been seen since a disappointing fourth place effort in June’s Belmont Stakes when he failed to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner since 1978.  The Art Sherman trainee has been training well at his home base of Los Alamitos Race Course and appears ready to roll. However, he still has a lot to prove if he wants to be considered an all-time great.  He did what he had to do in impressive fashion early in 2014 with an incredible six-race winning streak, but he still has yet to beat some of the top members of his class leaving plenty of questions still to be answered.

On Saturday, California Chrome begins his two-race quest to become a racing immortal.  A victory in the Pennsylvania Derby and then the Breeders’ Cup Classic will put this California-bred into a rare class and give him one of the most impressive three-year old resumes of all time, despite his loss in the third leg of the Triple Crown. On the other hand, two subpar efforts over the next six weeks and critics will be looking back to his slow Kentucky Derby time as well as the below average group of colts he beat at Pimlico when assessing Chrome’s racing career. The eight-horse field offers a few new faces as well as a few that the champ has already defeated, but without a doubt offers a serious challenge to the probable odds on favorite.

Bayern is the 7-2 second choice on Saturday for Bob Baffert and Kaleem Shah. This son of Offlee Wild had health issues during the early part of 2013 that took him out of the Kentucky Derby, but he made it to the Preakness before he lost all chance at the start and finished a distant ninth to California Chrome. It was after the poor effort in Baltimore that he turned things around and cemented his name near the top of the 2014 three-year old class.  A massive win in the Grade II Woody Stephens followed by a blowout victory in Monmouth Park’s Grade I Haskell Invitational in July had some believing he was the best three-year old in training. These thoughts were temporarily put to rest after his last place effort in last month’s Grade I Travers at Saratoga, but the truth is that he is probably somewhere in between his Haskell and Travers performances. There is little doubt that he runs his best when left alone on an easy lead and has put up most of his best efforts over speed-biased surfaces. On the other hand, his talent should not be questioned. He defeated two strong groups in his victories this summer and is incredibly dangerous on Saturday if he breaks well and runs his race. The Parx surface can be tricky and could play right into the hands of this speedy colt.  Saturday will go a long way in determining both the future plans and the legacy of Bayern.

Tapiture is the 5-1 third choice on the morning line coming off his narrow victory in the Grade II West Virginia Derby. This son of Tapit has had an up and down three-year old campaign for Steve Asmussen and Winchell Thoroughbreds, but enters Saturday off of two straight graded stakes victories. The question with Tapiture is whether this colt is getting better with age or if he is just a cut below the top three-year olds of the 2014 class. Many handicappers had him as their Kentucky Derby winner after impressive efforts in the Southwest and Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, but he disappointed immensely when he stepped up to face the very best.  Will this be the case again on Saturday or will he prove he belongs amongst the States’ classiest runners? Rosie Napravnik will once again be onboard and will hope to sit off the early pace and run them down late.

Protonico is the “now” horse entering Saturday’s race for trainer Todd Pletcher. This lightly raced son of Giant’s Causeway is 3 for 5 in his career and 2 for 3 since entering the Pletcher barn earlier this year. His third place finish in the Curlin Stakes at Saratoga against V.E. Day was visually impressive for his first effort versus stakes company and his troubled trip victory in the Grade III Smarty Jones over this track earlier this month was equally notable. The question here is whether this colt is ready to take on the classiest of the 2014 class. His strong effort over the track is encouraging, but the mile and an eighth distance and the step up against California Chrome and crew may prove to be more than he can swallow.  Then again, counting out Pletcher and Javier Castellano may be a massive error.

Candy Boy appears to be an outsider based on his continuous inability to beat the top contenders in this group, but perhaps he is finally figuring things out for trainer John Sadler. This fine looking son of Candy Ride has won just two races in his ten-race career, but his last two efforts have been his best yet.  Most recently he was defeated in the final strides by the aforementioned Tapiture in the West Virginia Derby, but arguably ran a much better race given his wide voyage throughout.  Joel Rosario gets his first chance on Candy Boy. Perhaps his aggressive style and incredibly strong finishing is just what this talented, underachieving colt needs to get back to the winners’ circle on Saturday. The value will certainly be there.

Noble MoonClassic Giacnroll and C J’s Awesome round out the eight-horse field. Noble Moon is a lightly raced Leah Gyarmati trainee that I have been on since his impressive maiden score at 25-1, but is probably overmatched here.  Classic Giacnroll has two wins and three seconds in six starts over the Parx surface, but class and the mile and an eighth distance are two huge concerns. C J’s Awesome will look to make an impression early in the race, but the presence of Bayern and his lack of class make him an outsider to finish in the top few.

There is little question that California Chrome is the one to beat on Saturday. His resume and back class speak for themselves, however there are a few reasons to be concerned if considering gambling on him. First and foremost is the lack of value. The popularity of Chrome combined with his past performances all but guarantee a $4 or less win payout. The rail draw and the time off could prevent him from running his best race plus there is the possibility that other three-year olds have caught up to Chrome since his early 2014 dominance.  His training has gone well since resting for some time, but his Triple Crown road was taxing and one that some do not ever recover from. If Chrome is an immortal he will surely overcome all of these potential obstacles.  My heart will hope that Chrome runs well and sets up a Breeders’ Cup Classic confrontation with undefeated Shared Belief, but my wallet will be looking for alternative wagering options..

Bayern will almost definitely be on the lead barring a poor break or unforeseen circumstances, but how far he takes the field will largely depend on the pressure he receives from Chrome and long shot C J’s Awesome.  My expectation is for Bayern to have to work early in this race like he was forced to do in the Travers last month, but there is a chance he is just too fast.  If Martin Garcia can relax him early he has an excellent opportunity to take this field gate-to-wire for the biggest win of his career, but there are too many variables and not enough value to gamble on that. The likelihood of Victor Espinoza allowing Bayern to dictate tempo, especially given Chrome’s rail draw seems very unlikely. I will gamble on the fact that Chrome is eager off the bench and pushes the early pace setting things up for those from off the pace. If this scenario occurs, I think there is a huge shot that Candy Boy is set to run by them all late. I know he has not shown that ability thus far, but he appears to have improved a lot in his last few starts and is sure to get a cleaner trip on Saturday. Joel Rosario has always had tremendous success when coupled with John Sadler and he should be able to save ground all the way.  Tapiture beat him last time, but Candy Boy ran the better race.  He is worth gambling on at 10-1 or higher.

PROJECTED FINISH:

1st–  #2 Candy Boy

2nd– #4 Bayern

3rd–  #1 California Chrome

4th–  #3 Protonico

5th– #5 Noble Moon

SUGGESTED WAGERS:

Let’s keep this simple and small as California Chrome is still the most likely winner and incredibly likely to finish in the top few.

WIN/PLACE wager on  #2 Candy Boy

EXACTA BOX   2+4

TRIFECTA KEY 2 with 1+3+4+5+7

ScottSScott Shapiro is a professional horse racing handicapper, lead analyst and editor for shapperdacapper.com and a contributor to DanonymousRacing.com.  

He lives in Denver, CO but is planning a move to the Del Mar area in 2015.  He takes pride in finding vulnerable favorites and defeating them in pick four, pick five and pick six wagers.  

Follow him on twitter @shapperdacapper.

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