By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
He’s arguably the most beloved three-year-old racehorse since Smarty Jones. His dominating victory in the Kentucky Derby was breathtaking to behold. His gritty victory in the Preakness Stakes was thrilling. His gallant fourth-place finish in the Belmont Stakes, achieved on an injured hoof and with a less-than-stellar trip, was admirable.
On Saturday, California Chrome, who captivated the world with his bid for the Triple Crown, will write a new chapter in his story when he returns to action in the $1,000,000 Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) at Parx Racing, his first start since the Belmont. Also on the Parx card are two other terrific graded stakes races, including the $1,000,000 Cotillion Stakes (gr. I), in which Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) winner Untapable will try to cement her dominance of the three-year-old filly division. So without further ado, let’s start handicapping this fantastic day of racing!
Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II)
Obviously, all eyes will be on dual-classic winner California Chrome, who has drawn the rail in a field of eight. When at his best, there’s little doubt that California Chrome would romp in this race, as he has beaten his primary rivals decisively in the past and possesses the consistency, tactical speed, and strong acceleration that defines a champion.
But there are two key factors that could potentially cause California Chrome some trouble on Saturday. The first is his lengthy layoff, having not run since early June. Throughout his thirteen-race career, California Chrome has never had any serious time off, and while he has recorded six solid workouts in preparation for his return, it’s unlikely that he is ready for a peak performance in his first start off the layoff. Of course, California Chrome may very well be good enough to win the Pennsylvania Derby at something less than peak fitness, but in order to do so, he’ll need to deal with drawing post position one.
What makes his post draw so interesting is that the innermost portion of the main track at Parx is notorious for being slower than the rest of the track, leading to an "outside bias" that favors horses racing wide. If such a bias is present on Saturday, it could prove a major stumbling block for ‘Chrome if he gets trapped along the inside.
But further complicating matters is the fact that rail at Parx can, on occasion, become the best part of the track. This was the case on Pennsylvania Derby day last year, leading to surprising results like City of Weston’s 30-1 upset in the Gallant Bob Stakes. And with a star colt like California Chrome having drawn the rail, I’m sure the staff at Parx will make every effort to create an unbiased racing surface. But even still, I will be paying close attention to the early races on the Saturday card, to try and determine whether the rail is good, bad, or the same as the rest of the track.
If you believe that California Chrome is vulnerable on Saturday, whether due to a bias, lack of fitness, or otherwise, the most logical candidate to pull an upset is probably Bayern, winner of the Haskell Invitational (gr. I) two starts back. His best Beyer speed figures are good enough to compete with California Chrome, but Bayern did take advantage of a track bias and an easy lead in the Haskell. When faced with more challenging circumstances in the Travers Stakes (gr. I) last time out, Bayern faded to finish last by twenty lengths. Granted, Bayern should be able to secure an easier lead in the Pennsylvania Derby than he did in the Travers, and the shorter distance should also help his chances. But until he repeats his Haskell performance over a fair racetrack, I’m not sure he’s good enough to defeat California Chrome going around two turns.
Another logical contender is Tapiture, winner of the West Virginia Derby (gr. II) and Matt Winn Stakes (gr. III) in his last two starts. In the West Virginia Derby, Tapiture overcame traffic in the homestretch to nail fellow Pennsylvania Derby starter Candy Boy by a nose, with subsequent Super Derby (gr. II) winner Vicar’s in Trouble another two lengths behind. I know Tapiture hasn’t really been competitive to this point against the best of his generation, but he seems to be improving with age, and has drawn well in post seven. Call it a gut feeling, but I think Tapiture is sitting on another sharp effort this Saturday, and while I’m not saying that he’s going to take down ‘Chrome… I’m not saying that he won’t, either.
My apologies for being indecisive, but I can’t feel confident in any official selection until I see how the track is playing. But for the moment, I’ll stay on board the California Chrome bandwagon and assume that his raw talent will see him through.
Cotillion Stakes (gr. I)
Three of the nine fillies entered in the Cotillion—Untapable, Stopchargingmaria, and Sweet Reason—have won two grade I races apiece this year, and in theory, a victory by any of these three in the Cotillion would establish them as the leading three-year-old filly in the country. But with Sweet Reason seemingly much more at home around one turn rather than two, and with Stopchargingmaria’s major victories having come in relatively weak renewals of the Alabama and Coaching Club American Oaks, it seems probable that Untapable is going to romp to another convincing victory on Saturday. After all, Untapable’s only defeat thus far this year came against colts in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I), in which she was compromised by a slow pace and a bias favoring early speed, and that performance can hardly be held against her.
The wild cards in the Cotillion are Cassatt, easy winner of the Monmouth Oaks (gr. III) for trainer Larry Jones, and Jojo Warrior, winner of two straight graded stakes races in California for trainer Bob Baffert. I am particularly intrigued by Jojo Warrior, who triumphed by 5 ¼ lengths in the Summertime Oaks (gr. II) two starts back after setting a solid pace. Having drawn gate seven, with Untapable and Stopchargingmaria to her outside, Jojo Warrior should be able to work out a good trip on or near the lead, and I think she has the ability to hang around for a top three finish at a solid price.
Gallant Bob Stakes (gr. III)
Fast Anna is the likely favorite off a narrow defeat in the seven-furlong King’s Bishop Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga, and the cutback in distance to six furlongs should only help his chances. But he did escape with a rather easy lead in the King’s Bishop, and the presence other speedy front-runners like Good Bye Greg and Pure Sensation makes the possibility of another easy lead unlikely.
Keeping this in mind, I really like the chances of Favorite Tale, who is unbeaten in three starts at Parx Racing. Not only does he possess terrific early speed, he is also capable of rating just off the lead with success. Having drawn the rail, he’ll have to hope—like California Chrome—that a bad rail does not emerge, but assuming the track is fair, I believe that Favorite Tale is poised to win his first graded stakes race this Saturday.
Who do you like this weekend?