By Richard Rosenblatt
Preakness winner War of Will is ready. So is Maximum Security, the first-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby. Improbable is probably in, too.
The $1 million Pennsylvania Derby (G1) at Parx Racing on Saturday is shaping up as quite a compelling race for 3-year-olds.
The 1 1/8-mile race has grown in popularity over the past few years after a date shift from Labor Day to the third Saturday in September. The change resulted in an upgrade to Grade 1 status in 2017 as it became an important prep on the road to the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), this year at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 2.
In the past 10 years, the Pennsylvania Derby winner ran in the Breeders’ Cup Classic eight times, producing one winner (Bayern, 2014) and two runner-up finishes (Will Take Charge, 2013; and Morning Line, 2010).
For the first time, the race will be nationally televised (NBC, 5-6 p.m. ET). The post-position draw is Monday, with a field of anywhere between five and eight horses.
“I commend Parx on making this race so tough. It’s an incredibly tough race,’’ said two-time Triple Crown winning trainer Bob Baffert, adding that Improbable will breeze Monday morning before a final decision on running is made.
“You’ve got the Preakness winner, and you’ve got Maximum Security, who I think is still the best 3-year-old in the country. He’s the horse to beat,’’ the Hall of Famer added.
Gary Barber’s War of Will won the Preakness (G1) on May 18 after finishing seventh in the Derby, having likely been affected by Maximum Security, who finished first but was DQ’d to 17th for interference in the stretch with two other horses.
In two starts since the Preakness, War of Will finished ninth in the Belmont Stakes (G1) and fifth in the Jim Dandy (G2). The War Front colt was the only horse to run in all three Triple Crown races. He worked four furlongs in a speedy 47.40 seconds at Belmont Park on Sept. 14, the fastest of 48 workers at the same distance.
“All systems are go for the Pennsylvania Derby,’’ said trainer Mark Casse on Sunday. “The breeze went very well.”
Gary and Mary West’s Maximum Security, meanwhile, won the Haskell Invitational (G1) on a steamy, hot day at Monmouth Park on July 20. Trainer Jason Servis took a pass on the Travers (G1), saying his colt wasn’t in top shape and would work toward the Pennsylvania Derby.
So far, so good. With Monmouth Park about a 75-minute van ride to Parx, located outside Philadelphia, Servis put Maximum Security through a three-furlong work there, covering the distance in 40.55 on Sept. 6.
The son of New Year’s Day has a scheduled workout at Parx on Monday morning before the draw, but Servis says all is going smoothly.
“I like where he is, but we still have to get through this week,’’ said Servis.
Maximum Security has won five of seven career starts, his only losses coming in the Derby and on June 16, when he finished second in the Pegasus Stakes.
WinStar Farm, China Horse Club International and Starlight Racing’s Improbable is still seeking a breakthrough victory. He won the Los Alamitos Derby (G1), and opened his 3-year-old season by running second in the Rebel (G2) and Arkansas Derby (G1) before finishing fourth and sixth in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, respectively. In his most recent start, he won the Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar on Aug.25.
“He’s a horse that changed style last time to show speed,’’ said Baffert of Improbable’s most recent win, adding that Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith will be aboard for the Pennsylvania Derby. “It was a great comeback race for him.”
It’s another trip east for a Baffert 3-year-old, and the trainer is looking for his fourth win in the Pennsylvania Derby, third in a row. He won with West Coast in 2017 and McKinzie in 2018, and also won in 2014 with Bayern.
It’s been a rugged year for the 3-year-old division – present and past. Expected Derby favorite Omaha Beach was scratched a few days before the race. Then there was the first winner in Derby history to be disqualified.
And in the past week, another bad optic for the entire racing industry – a New York Times report that Baffert’s 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify failed a drug test after winning the Santa Anita Derby and shouldn’t have been able to run in the Kentucky Derby.
But back to the upcoming weekend, and some of 3-year-olds pointing to the Pennsylvania Derby. One is the intriguing Mr. Money, owned by Allied Racing Stable. The bay son of Goldencents has won four Grade 3’s in a row, most recently the West Virginia Derby on Aug. 3. Now, trainer Bret Calhoun has decided it’s time to step up into Grade 1 company.
“It’s sure going to be fun seeing some of the best 3-year-olds come together,” said Calhoun. “Both sides of the fence, our race looks ultra-competitive.”Spun to Run, winner of the Smarty Jones (G3) at Parx in his most recent start for trainer Juan Carlos Guerrero, also is probable.
Possibles include Math Wizard, Olympic Village and Parsimony.
Two graded stakes are on the Pennsylvania Derby undercard – the $1 million Cotillion (G1) for 3-year-old fillies, a Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win and You’re In” race; and the $300,000 Gallant Bob (G2), for 3-year-olds at six furlongs.
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.