One day each year, Parx Casino & Racetrack in Bensalem, PA offers huge jackpots to connections of four-legged participants that greatly exceed those attainable by even the most fortunate two-legged gamblers.
This year, that special day is Saturday, when five stakes races worth $2.8 million highlight a card that includes the 40th running of the Grade 2, $1.25 million Pennsylvania Derby. The race features the first three finishers from the Kentucky Derby--Nyquist, Exaggerator and Gun Runner—and follows the 50th presentation of the Grade 1, $1 million Cotillion, starring the unbeaten, untied and un-scored upon 3-year-old filly sensation Songbird!
Originally called Keystone Racetrack in 1974, the track changed hands in 1990 and became Philadelphia Park. When slot machines rolled into town in 2004 on a wagon propelled by Smarty Jones’ immense popularity, everything changed, including the track’s name. The former moniker seemed inadequate because it didn’t capture the new brand. ‘Philadelphia Park’ sounded like a place where a retired, punch-drunk, former heavyweight champ named Rocky might go to feed pigeons.
The joint was rebooted as Parx Casino & Racetrack.
Catchy name, right? See what they did there? They dropped the word Philadelphia and changed the ‘k’ in ‘Park’ to an ‘x.’ Then they added the words ‘Casino’ and ‘Racetrack.’
The casino, which originally offered only slots but now boasts expanded gaming, is doing very well. Most do, except those in Atlantic City. According to its web site, “Parx is the state’s No. 1 gambling casino and its greatest generator of gaming revenue.”
The racing side of the family, buoyed by casino-juiced purses, grinds along, filling daily cards with a mix of local runners, shippers from neighboring tracks and sometime invaders from the Big Apple.
Nothing that happens at Parx on a regular basis is nearly as significant as what will occur there Saturday. For that matter, it’s doubtful anything has ever happened at Parx that is as important as what’s coming this weekend.
That includes a beautiful, late-May Saturday morning when approximately 10,000 fans, including yours truly, gathered to watch local-boy-makes-good Smarty Jones gallop. Trainer John Servis accompanied the Kentucky Derby and Preakness hero astride a pony while wearing a bright orange and black Philadelphia Flyers jersey. It was a gesture of Brotherly Love for local skaters scheduled to dispute Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals that evening on the road against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
That night, in hindsight, perhaps as an omen, the Flyers lost 2-1 and were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs. Less than two weeks later, Smarty Jones shockingly succumbed to Birdstone in the Belmont stretch and failed to become the sport’s first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.
Over the years, oodles of important 3-year-olds have won the Pennsylvania Derby, including Broad Brush, Summer Squall, Macho Uno, Will Take Charge, Bayern and Frosted. Still, Parx has left little to chance in attracting top sophs to the race. For this year’s edition, a race condition reads: “All horses that start in this race that have won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes, Haskell Invitational or Travers will qualify the owner and trainer to receive $50,000 additional.”
Because he won both the Preakness and Haskell, Exaggerator’s a dual qualifier. Owners Big Chief Racing, LLC, Head of Plains Partners LLC, Rocker O Ranch, LLC et al and trainer Keith Desormeaux will divide mad stacks of Benjamins worth a total of $200,000 even if their colt fails to light the PA Derby board!
Just breaking from the PA Derby gate will allow Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist to gift owner Reddam Racing LLC and trainer Doug O’Neill $50,000 each, for a total heist of $100,000!
Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Gun Runner doesn’t qualify for any bonus bread. His owner and trainer will have to make money the old fashioned way…to earn it!
Despite wheelbarrows full of appearance-fee moolah, the PA Derby may not be Saturday’s most interesting race to a nationwide audience. Songbird, electric winner of 10-out-of-10 starts, including Saratoga’s historic Alabama Stakes by seven lengths last time out, will meet five other 3-year-old fillies in the Cotillion. In a bountiful season that boasts many stars this fast filly is at the top of the heap.
Her complete domination in each and every race, from Del Mar to Santa Anita to Keeneland to Saratoga, has been remarkable. She has won every race by at least three and three-quarter lengths and by over five lengths on seven occasions! In four starts at age two and six outings at three she’s been headed at just four points of call—the first two calls in both the Summer Oaks at Santa Anita and in the Alabama at Saratoga—in each case she was merely a length or less off the leader!
Some feel Songbird not only is the best sophomore female racehorse on the planet, but that she also could handle 3-year-old males. Perhaps. Rick Porter, owner of Fox Hill Farm, announced early in the year that Songbird would not face males this season. Hall-of-Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer agreed and the pair haven’t wavered despite tempting offers.
It appears to this handicapper as if the only Cotillion starter with a prayer of defeating Songbird is the talented Cathryn Sophia. She can rate just off the pace, has won six of eight starts, including a pair of Grade 2s and the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks. She has local connections—is owned by Cash is King LLC, former owner of Preakness and Belmont winner Afleet Alex and is trained by Parx stalwart John Servis. She won each of her first four starts by at least five and one-half lengths and is two-for-two over the Parx surface.
It’s just a guess, but trainer Servis likely would derive an extra bit of pleasure if Cathryn Sophia were to upend Songbird. Servis used to train for Songbird’s owner Rick Porter and, no matter what politically correct trainers publicly say, it’s always nice to upset a former client in a Grade 1 race—especially if you can pop a 10-for10 balloon.
If you’re interested, Parx has a late pick four that starts in the eighth race--the $150,000 PA Derby Championship for three-year-olds and upward at a mile and one sixteenth. Here is one man’s opinion about how to play the wager:
8th Race – (3:41 pm ET)
#5 Mr. Jordan (2-1) is the morning-line favorite in this race and boasts the strong Plesa/Lopez trainer/jockey combo. This 4-year-old has speed and shortens up from the mile and one-eighth Grade 3 Iselin last out at Monmouth. Downside is that this one has won just once in his last 11 starts. Still, he must be respected.
#4 Res Judicata (4-1) is a PA-bred from the successful John Servis barn. Multiple Eclipse Award winning Javier Castellano rides this one and Cathryn Sophia later for the barn. The 6-year-old gelding has won four of 11 starts at Parx and defeated morning-line favorite Mr. Jordan July 2 at Monmouth Park going a mile.
#2 Encryption (9/2) loves Parx and has two wins in as many starts there. Trainer Kelly Breen is batting .380 at this track where jockey Juarez is a solid 2 for 8. Encryption also has a pair of bullet works since his last race July 31, when he was outrun in the ‘sloppy’ Grade 2 Monmouth Cup. He’s got enough speed to be close up throughout.
#7 Tale of Life (3-1) comes off the best race of his 13-race career—a wire-to-wire allowance win at Saratoga going a mile and one-eighth. It’s always dangerous to ignore a sharp 4-year-old cutting back in distance off a win. When that colt is trained by Graham Motion ignorance can be deadly. Forget the turf starts for this one and you’re looking at a runner that’s been in the money all five times over a fast dirt surface!
9th Race Gallant Bob (4:14 pm ET)
#3 Threefiveindia (7-2) won his first start for new trainer Chad Brown and that suggests there’s more in the tank. A winner in three of four starts, including his last two—allowance races at Churchill and Saratoga--this one will have the services of Javier Castellano.
#10 Klingon Warrior (20-1) is an unbeaten local runner that’s had trouble staying sound. He’s only raced twice, both wins at Parx a year apart. He blew out in a bullet :59 3/5 for this race.
#4 Navy Hymn (5-1) ships in from California off a strong allowance win at Del Mar. Trainer Richard Baltas has had a successful summer. This one was claimed for $16k (by Baltas), $25k (from Baltas) and finally for $40k (by Baltas again) four races back. He’s got California speed and that must always be respected. Graded sprints for 3-year-olds at this time of the year are like hen’s teeth, so it’s not surprising Baltas would ship and take a shot.
#5 Noholdingback Bear (5-2) is more like a tiger than a bear. He’s won three of his last five races and was third in the Grade 1 King’s Bishop—the defining 3-year-old sprint—last out. All his wins have come over synthetic tracks, but that effort last out at the Spa can’t be dismissed. He’s also got a bullet :59 4/5 at Woodbine to his credit since his last race.
#11 Who’s Out (12-1) is another California shipper with a pair of decent sprints on his resume. He’s a bit of a reach in here, but a great post position and a great stalking style will help the cause for a dynamite Hall-of-Fame trainer/jockey combination of Hollendorfer/Smith.
10th Race Cotillion (4:55 pm ET)
#5 Songbird (1-2) is strictly the one to beat in here. See above.
#2 Cathryn Sophia (5-2) seems like the only runner in here with even a slight hope of knocking off the champ.
11th Race Pennsylvania Derby (5:45 pm ET)
#2 Exaggerator (9-2) and #9 Nyquist (5-2) clearly are the most accomplished in this field, but both have negatives and figure to start at short prices. The former should have a solid pace to attack, but handicappers must answer this question: ‘What happened to him in the Travers Stakes when he failed to pick up his hooves as favorite?’ It’s understood that the lack of pace in the Travers did not work to his advantage and no horse on earth was going to beat Arrogate that day, but he failed to follow through on a threatening mid-race move. Is he finally knocked out from a long, successful season or can horseplayers toss the Travers and expect a better effort in here?
The latter is coming off a freshening since late July following a disappointing fourth in the Haskell Stakes. He has been training at San Luis Rey, a training center in Southern California, and has four one-mile moves to his credit since the break. Is the Kentucky Derby winner ready to breathe fire again right off the bench for trainer Doug O’Neill? Maybe. However, at a short price it’s worth looking somewhere else.
Here are a few developing runners with upset chances in the PA Derby:
#3 Summer Revolution (8-1) is very interesting. This colt by Summer Bird won his first two starts before finishing fourth in the King’s Bishop at the Spa. He broke a bit slowly in that race, made up ground to race inside and just couldn’t quicken with explosive winner Drefong. Summer Revolution never gave up, however, and that effort ought to have him ready to fire a big one in here. It should be noted that he exploded second-time out to win going seven furlongs in fast time at Saratoga.
#10 Sunny Ridge (12-1) finished third in the Haskell at 31-1 odds. That July race was his first out since March when he was injured in the Gotham Stakes. He’s been reasonably close to Exaggerator on a few occasions—a neck behind him in the Delta Jackpot and three lengths in arrears in the Haskell. Jockey Joe Bravo has had success in this race with three career wins. Lots of positives for a runner who started for a $40k maiden claiming tag first out and subsequently has raced in graded stakes in six of seven starts.
#1 Awesome Slew (10-1) won the Grade 3 Smarty Jones at Parx--a prep for this. Blinkers were added two races back and, following a poor performance in the Haskell over a sloppy track, produced the desired result. Obviously, this guy loves the surface, but he’ll need to do even better than he did in his last out to win this race. Still, sharp, developing 3-year-olds with big scores over the track at 10-1 odds shouldn’t be completely ignored.
#4 Connect (12-1) failed in the Travers, his first try in a graded stakes race. However, heading into that race Connect had won three of his first four starts, with improving speed figures each time. The Chad Brown/Javier Castellano trainer/jockey combo is deadly. At a big price this one also should be considered.
#7 Gun Runner (6-1) has five wins in nine starts and has mixed it up with the big boys throughout his 3-year-old season. Third in the Kentucky Derby, he also won the Risen Star, Louisiana Derby and Matt Winn. He was third last time out behind Arrogate in the Travers. Don’t let that losing margin of 15 lengths fool you. Arrogate won by nearly 14! That Travers effort, arguably, is the best last out performance of any runner in this field.
Pick Four Strategy
With Songbird a probable winner in Race 10, effectively turning this Pick Four into a Pick Three, the only way to make a decent score is to beat Songbird or to whip both Nyquist and Exaggerator in the PA Derby and to get a longshot home in one other race. As outlined above, Songbird looks strong and should be singled on smaller tickets. However, in the wager’s final stanza, there are legitimate reasons to avoid the Derby favorites.
50-Cent Pick Four (Total Cost $100)
Race 8 – 2, 5, 4, 7
Race 9 – 3, 4, 5, 10, 11
Race 10 – 5, 2 (Eliminate #2 to Cut Total Cost to $50)
Race 11 – 1, 3, 4, 7, 10