Does Land Over Sea Hold the Key to the Pennsylvania Derby?

Land Over Sea in a familiar position — chasing Songbird (in the Santa Ysabel).

Land Over Sea in a familiar position — chasing Songbird (in the Santa Ysabel).

On Saturday, the Grade I, $1 million Cotillion Stakes for three-year-old fillies will be run at Parx Casino and Racing at a mile and a sixteenth. Despite the fact that it is the only Grade I on the Parx Racing and Casino stakes schedule, the race has always been overshadowed by a Grade II race, mainly the $1.25 million Pennsylvania Derby. But on merit, the Cotillion deserves to be considered as one of the best races a three-year-old filly can win in the calendar year.

In the four years since the race was elevated to Grade I status, the race has been won by fillies that were champions in their career and/or used the race as a prep for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

In 2012, 2-Year-Old Filly Champion My Miss Aurelia defeated 2-5 favorite Questing by a head to win the Cotillion. She followed that up with a second-place finish in the BC Distaff to repeat winner and Eclipse Champion Royal Delta.

Close Hatches, who won the Cotillion in 2013 as the favorite, came back and ran second in the BC Distaff to that year’s eventual Three-Year-Old Filly Champion, Beholder.  The following year, she was named Champion Older Mare.

In 2014, Untapable, who was coming off the worst performance in her career at the time when she was fifth in the Grade I Haskell, came back to win the Cotillion. She then went on to win the BC Distaff and give Rosie Napravnik the storybook ending to her riding career, as she told her mother after the race she was pregnant and was retiring.

In 2015, I’m a Chatterbox came off a second-place finish to Embellish the Lace in the Grade I Alabama to win the Cotillion as the favorite by two lengths. She was eighth in the BC Distaff, but was a finalist for the three-year-old filly Eclipse.

This year’s matchup has been billed as a face-off between the top two fillies in their division: the unbeaten Songbird, owned by Rick Porter and trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, and Oaks winner Cathryn Sophia, trained by John Servis and owned by locally based ownership group Cash Is King Stable. Led by Chuck Zacney, the Cash Is King ownership group also campaigned 2005 Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Afleet Alex.

Cathryn Sophia

Cathryn Sophia

While Cathryn Sophia only made her second career start at Parx in the race created for her on Labor Day weekend, the Princess of Sylmar Stakes, she is a very popular horse in the area. Even though she only ran once at Parx, winning her maiden race by 12 1/4 lengths in October 2015, Parx took out a billboard on I-95 by the Street Road exit, the one that is used to go to Parx, to congratulate the connections on winning the Kentucky Oaks. Cash is King has been known to have a big entourage and huge celebrations after winning major races. There are reports going around that the entourage for Cathryn Sophia on Saturday could reach up to 200 people.

What can we say about Songbird that hasn’t already been said? She is undefeated in 10 career starts. After going off at 2-1 in her career debut, she has been favored in all her races since then. She was 1.1-1 odds in her second career start and, then, 3-5 or less in the rest of her starts.

She arrived at Parx on Monday and went to the track for the first time locally on Tuesday. She schooled in the paddock during the sixth race on Tuesday and she looked good except for one thing that I noticed.

While she was in the walking ring and then the paddock, a plane flew overhead two different times. Each time she reacted to the noise from the plane, acting up but not going crazy or out of control. She was quickly settled by handlers and continued schooling.

Could this be a onetime thing or could she be distracted by noise? Granted, this was her first time exploring Parx and maybe she will get used to it. But with an expected huge crowd at Parx on Saturday and with fans being close to the paddock and walking ring, pay attention to Songbird and see if she has any negative reaction to the fans or the noise they could make.

One other horse to look at is Land Over Sea. She is best known as the horse that ran second to Songbird in three of five starts. She then shipped to Fair Grounds and won the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks. In the Kentucky Oaks, she ran second to Cathryn Sophia. But her next start may turn out to be a key race… although not for this race.

Sent off the 8-5 favorite in the Grade II Black Eyed Susan, Land Over Sea had to check before entering the clubhouse turn and, then, was bothered by A P Majestic as the field entered the clubhouse turn. On the run down the backstretch she was stuck on the inside. An overhead view on NBC shows Mario Gutierrez trying to get out to get her comfortable and have racing room, but she was surrounded by horses and forced to stay inside. She eventually lost all interest in the race and finished a non-threatening sixth.

So, how is this a key race to another race? It’s very simple. As we know, Land Over Sea has the same connections as the then-undefeated Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist. After that experience in the Black-Eyed Susan, one can wonder if Doug O’Neill and Mario Gutierrez were worried about being ganged up on and getting caught in traffic in the Preakness.

Nyquist

Nyquist

Of course, the only way to make sure that didn’t happen is to be on the lead. O’Neill has admitted to telling Gutierrez that he must win the race into clubhouse turn. They used the same tactics to win the Grade I Florida Derby, so why wouldn’t it work here? Of course, no one expected Nyquist to set the fastest first quarter in Preakness history, :22.38.

After running that fast first quarter, Nyquist still ran a tremendous race. He was caught at the wire by Cherry Wine to lose second by a nose in the race won by Exaggerator in the slop. He developed a fever after the Preakness and missed the Belmont Stakes. He came back in the Haskell and was hard-used early before fading to fourth as the favorite in another race won by Exaggerator in the slop.

He was sent to San Luis Ray Downs to prepare for the Pennsylvania Derby and Doug O’Neill has been proclaiming that Nyquist will now come off the pace. Could the last two races been an anomaly and we finally get to see the real Nyquist here, running in a manner as he did when he won the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile? Now, in the Pennsylvania Derby, with Exaggerator needing to prove that he can win on a fast track, the race could be there for the taking for Nyquist. Question is: how will he attempt to do it?

John DaSilva
John was the longest-tenured active handicapper and writer in New York City while working with the New York Post, with 19 years of experience providing detailed daily analysis for major media outlets. He has a demonstrated history of successful selections with a career winning percentage of around 30 percent and is frequently requested to appear as an expert analyst on television, radio, and in print.
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