Racing used to be so cut and dry. It was easy to determine whether a race was good or bad just by handicapping it, watching it, and assessing whether it was a classy performance against classy competition and just how good the winner was.
There usually weren’t any real human interest, Cinderella stories to cloud your vision. It was all about the horse, who very often was owned by the upper crust of society and trained by a veteran horseman and ridden by a veteran jockey who were destined for the Hall of Fame.
Well, there no longer is an upper crust of society, and trainers are getting younger and younger and you never know who is going to come from out of nowhere to shine on a particular day. You used to have names like Whitney, Vanderbilt, Widener, and Phipps. Now you have names like Saffie and Sophie winning million-dollar races on the same card.
So with the Breeders’ Cup getting closer and the final preps determining how the races are going to shape up, we have to try to remain objective. But there are those feel-good stories that make you forget about the Breeders’ Cup and concentrate only on the race in question.
That brings us to the Pennsylvania Derby, whose result obviously did not strike fear in the hearts of Bob Baffert, Shug McGaughey, John Sadler, Bill Mott, and Jimmy Jerkens, all of whom have leading contenders for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Breaking the race down to bare facts it has to leave you pretty dubious about the result. First you have the favorite, Maximum Security, scratched early in the week due to colic. Then you have the 6-5 race-time favorite Improbable turning his head right at the break and getting left at the gate, which all but eliminated him. Then you have the 8-5 second choice, Mr. Money, setting a sloth-like pace and stalked by the 3-1 third choice, Preakness winner War of Will. By going the half in a lethargic :49 3/5, which was more than three full seconds slower than the :46 1/5 half set in the Cotillion Stakes the race before, there was no way both those horses in a six-horse field should have been beaten by 31-1 shot Math Wizard, who had been beaten almost 12 lengths by Mr. Money in his previous start and who was running last behind that ridiculously slow pace.
You would have thought after that half, followed by an equally slow three-quarters in 1:13 2/5, they were home free and would have drawn off in the stretch. But not only did they both fail to open up and get caught by a horse who had been claimed three races in a row, they even let Improbable, who no doubt would have been on the lead, back in the race with a good chance in the stretch.
So, it appears at first glance that the Pennsylvania Derby will have no impact on the Classic, if any of these horses even wind up running in the race.
But then again, let’s look at the race inside out. On one hand, Mr. Money and War of Will lost a race either one should have won. But maybe, just maybe, this was more a case of Math Wizard winning a race he should have lost. Maybe he deserves more credit than he got. He did, in fact, come home his last three-eighths in :36 2/5, which is more than legitimate, it is downright fast.
And then there is the feel-good story of trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. to cloud our vision even further. How could you not feel good for the young Barbados-born trainer after watching him get all choked up and nearly in tears after the race. Not only does he put in a claim for Math Wizard for $25,000, he watches him win by 18 1/4 lengths and then learns there are six claims in for the horse and he has to win a six-way shake. As Joseph said, “People can say we were lucky. I say we were blessed.”
That is the difference between racing today and yesterday. The opportunities are there now for the little-known guy or gal who is fortunate enough to catch lightning in a bottle. And because of that, the opportunities are also there for horses crawling out of the depths of obscurity and into the limelight.
How else can you explain Maximum Security and Math Wizard both coming out of the same $16,000 maiden claiming race and not only winning grade 1, million-dollar races, but Maximum Security finishing first in the Kentucky Derby?
Maximum Security, who won that maiden claiming race by 9 3/4 lengths, somehow was not claimed, but third-place finisher Math Wizard was claimed after finishing sixth for a $30,000 claiming tag and third (on a disqualification) for a $15,000 claiming tag, then claimed for $16,000 while getting beaten 10 3/4 lengths by Maximum Security. He then was claimed again in his next start for $16,000 while winning by 6 3/4 lengths, and finally claimed for $25,000 by Saffie Joseph Jr.
Ironically, along the way, both horses won races by more than 18 lengths – Maximum Security in an optional claiming starter allowance race against former claimers and Math Wizard in the race he was claimed by Joseph.
In the last two races he was claimed, Math Wizard was ridden by Jose Ortiz. In the Pennsylvania Derby he was a last-minute pick-up mount for Ortiz’ brother Irad, who was there to ride Serengeti Empress in the Cotillion Stakes.
To further demonstrate the bizarre nature of this year’s 3-year-old crop when it comes to jockeys, in the $16,000 claiming race, in which Maximum Security and Math Wizard finished first and third, the favorite in the race, Guerreron, who was sandwiched between them in second, was ridden by Luis Saez, who would become the regular rider of Maximum Security. Could he have ever envisioned watching the colt far ahead of him in that claiming race that he would one day ride him to victory in the Kentucky Derby, only to become the first jockey in the history of the race to be disqualified by the stewards?
As for Guerreron, he was eventually claimed twice, both for, guess what, $16,000. In his last race, for a $10,000 tag, he was ridden by Edgard Zayas, the jockey who decided at the last minute to stay in Florida instead of riding Math Wizard in the Pennsylvania Derby.
But no matter how you view the Pennsylvania Derby, it was a great underdog story for both horse and trainer and should give all small-time owners and trainers hope that one day they will be able to bask in the limelight on national TV and earn a trip to the Breeders’ Cup or the Kentucky Derby.
Joseph grew up on a farm in Barbados. His father’s horses were based there, so horses have been his whole life since he was 3 years old. “This is all I ever wanted to do in life,” he said. “I started training in Barbados when I was 18. I went to high school in Miami for about two years and my parents wanted me to go to college, but after one year at FIU (Florida International University) I realized that wasn’t for me and I returned to Barbados and started training.
“Racing in Barbados is more of a hobby than a business. You know you’re going to lose money. You train horses there just for the love of it. In 2011, I came to Florida to train, but I had no horses. Then I got two horses from Barbados that had been bought at the Ocala 2-year-old sale. One of them, Artefacto, won his first three starts, so he was my first winner here. Then we bought five more at the sale. Soon I had eight horses. The first year we won 10 races in five or six months. We didn’t have many clients, but it was a gradual progression. The last two years everything started taking off. I always believed if we were given the opportunity we could do it. You wonder, is it ever going to happen? There’s always doubt, but you just have to keep working hard.”
Then, on Jan. 31 of 2019, a horse came along who would change his life; the horse he had been dreaming of since he was a child.
“Math Wizard had won his previous race, he seemed like a horse who was getting better, and he was a May foal,” Joseph said. “His dam had won a grade 3 going a distance of ground, so I thought maybe he could be a nice starter allowance horse. You always have dreams they’re going develop into a stakes horse, but you have to keep your dreams bottled inside and be realistic. I put in the claim and after he won so impressively there was a six-way shake.
“I also claimed the horse that finished third in that race and eventually claimed the horse that finished second. Math Wizard just kept getting better and better. John (majority owner Fanelli) is not afraid to take chances and he wanted to run him in the Wood Memorial after he was second in an optional claimer at Gulfstream. It looked like a crazy decision, but when he finished fourth (at 64-1) I became a believer. That started it all.”
Then came another fourth in the Oaklawn Park Invitational, a second, beaten a half-length, in the Ohio Derby, and a third in the Indiana Derby. But that was followed by a dismal performance in the West Virginia Derby.
“That was one race too many,” Joseph said. “Those other races took their toll. In hindsight, I should have brought him home (to Gulfstream Park), but we kept him in the Midwest because all those races were in close proximity of each other. After the West Virginia Derby we got him back home and freshened him up. When he breezed a half 46 1/5 it was visually very eye catching, He laid 10 lengths off another horse and went by him effortlessly and came home in :22 4/5. Then when he worked five furlongs in 1:01 3/5 and galloped out in 1:13 for the six furlongs, 1:26 for the seven furlongs, and pulled up a mile in 1:40, John wanted to run him the Pennsylvania Derby. I said we can’t put him on a van on Monday until we see how he recovers from the work. If he didn’t recover well enough then we’d have to scratch him. I was against it, but John found out he could get a flight on Thursday. I said, ‘Alright, let’s enter and see how he is. If he gives us the right signs we’ll put him on the plane. If not, we won’t.’ I was looking for every reason to not go, but he never gave me any signs he shouldn’t go. He kept giving us every reason to go.
“With nothing confirmed, I told (regular rider) Edgard (Zayas), ‘I’m going to put you on and it’s you and your agent’s option whether you want to go or not. If you want to go it’s your horse to ride. If you decide not to there will be other riders there and we’ll get someone.’ His agent said they had business at Gulfstream that day, so they decided not to go. Edgard worked him all three times so it was hard on him.”
Meanwhile, Joseph’s father and his brother watched the race in Barbados. “They were jumping up and down and I was told it took my dad a couple of hours to recover,” Joseph said. “This is what I dream of. It’s all I ever wanted to do in life. I never doubted our ability. If we had the horses I felt we’re as capable as anyone. Without the horses I’m nothing. I’m so proud of the horse. He laid it on the line and he delivered. I figured if we finished third or fourth we’d be happy. It was a gutsy call to run him and it was rewarded.”
So Joseph has his first grade 1 victory at age 32. Now comes the question of whether to point for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Joseph said they won’t make a decision for another two weeks, but it definitely is in play.
“We’ll give him an easy 10 days and then we’ll see,” he said. “We have nothing to lose. Two weeks ago if you told someone that Math Wizard was going to win the Pennsylvania Derby they would have laughed at you. John has the confidence to take these kinds of chances. Our job is to just take care of him and keep him happy. If he’s happy and ready to go we’ll give him a chance.”
Math Wizard should have no trouble with the mile and a quarter. His sire, Algorithms, is by Bernardini, out of a Cryptoclearance mare, and Algorithms’ second dam is by Belmont Stakes winner Avatar, a son of Graustark. Algorithms also is inbred to Fappiano. Math Wizard’s dam is by Deputy Minister, out of a daughter of Halo. So, with his running style, his turn of foot, and his ability to come home fast despite slow fractions, there is no reason why Math Wizard shouldn’t appreciate the extra eighth of a mile.
As Joseph said, there’s nothing to lose, and the colt has earned the chance, having already turned that $25,000 investment into earnings of over $1.4 million. And the Classic could use a good old fashioned Cinderella story.
So to answer the original question, the Pennsylvania Derby was a darn good result.