By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Get ready, everyone! With just six weeks remaining until the Breeders’ Cup, things are starting to get serious, and starting this weekend, many of the top contenders for races like the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) and Breeders’ Cup Distaff (gr. I) will be running in their final prep races. On September 19th, Parx Racing will hold a stellar card highlighted by three graded stakes races, including the $1,000,000 Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) for three-year-olds. Let’s take a look at who’s running!
Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II)
||3rd West Virginia Derby (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
||Brian Hernandez, Jr.
||1st Smarty Jones Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)|
||3rd Travers Stakes (gr. I) (VIDEO)|
||4th West Virginia Derby (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
||1st West Virginia Derby (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
||Gimme Da Lute
||1st El Cajon Stakes (VIDEO)|
||7th West Virginia Derby (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
||3rd Smarty Jones Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)|
||Irad Ortiz, Jr.
||Richard Violette, Jr.
||4th Travers Stakes (gr. I) (VIDEO)|
||D. Wayne Lukas
||7th King’s Bishop Stakes (gr. I) (VIDEO)|
The morning line favorite at 5-2 is Frosted, who has been remarkably consistent in his last five starts. After winning the Wood Memorial (gr. I) with an impressive late run, he finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) despite a poor trip, second in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), and second by a half-length in the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) before being sent off as the third choice in the Travers Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga. Much to the surprise of all, the usually stretch-running colt was sent up to press the pace early on in the Travers, battling with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah through an intense second half-mile in :46.78 seconds. Frosted managed to take the lead after a mile, but understandably tired from his exertions to finish third, beaten three lengths.
Here’s where things get tricky. If Frosted runs his best race, he has to be considered the horse to beat. His Beyer speed figures are consistently faster than those earned by the majority of his rivals. But he’s also made seven starts this year and will be running back just three weeks after his taxing effort in the Travers, which could leave him vulnerable to regressing. Additionally, Parx can be a very speed-favoring track, as it was on Pennsylvania Derby day last year, and I would not be surprised if a similar bias turns up this year, which could prove problematic for Frosted. After the unexpected pace-pressing tactics failed in the Travers, I can’t imagine his connections will try sending Frosted to the lead again, which could leave him at a disadvantage if the track is indeed speed-favoring.
As a result, I believe that Gimme Da Lute has a big chance to pull off the upset. Trained by Bob Baffert, who sent out Bayern to upset this race last year, Gimme Da Lute brings a four-race win streak into the Pennsylvania Derby and couldn’t be in better form. Four starts back, he beat future graded stakes winners Prospect Park and Om in the Affirmed Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita, then beat Prospect Park once again in the Los Alamitos Derby (gr. II), in which he proved that he can handle nine furlongs while tracking a fast pace and hanging on to win in the time of 1:47.09 seconds. He then won the seven-furlong Real Good Deal Stakes against fellow California-breds by 12 ¼ lengths, and showed a lot of grit last time out to defeat his talented stablemate Fame and Power in an oddly-run four-horse renewal of the El Cajon Stakes at Del Mar. To me, Gimme Da Lute looks like a perfect fit for the Pennsylvania Derby—he’s a horse with lots of tactical speed, impressive speed figures, and a proven ability to handle the distance. His sharp six-furlong workout in 1:11 4/5 on September 11th should have him ready to roll, and drawing post six should give him every opportunity to secure the early lead and take this field a long way on the front end. He is my selection to win.
Upstart is another colt that warrants respect after finishing fourth in the Travers Stakes. He really ran an admirable race that day, racing within striking range of the fast pace and staying on well throughout the homestretch. Ten furlongs is probably a bit far for him, so he should appreciate the cutback in distance for the Pennsylvania Derby, and if Frosted doesn’t bring his best race, Upstart might be able to turn the tables. He’s definitely one to consider for the exotics.
Two longshots that I think have a big chance are Iron Fist (8-1) and Island Town (10-1). The former won two straight races at Santa Anita earlier this summer before running fourth in the West Virginia Derby (gr. II) after making a strong move from off-the-pace to challenge for the lead in the homestretch. It was a bit surprising to see him so far back early on that day, as he usually shows more early speed, and a return to his front-running style should help his chances on Saturday. Also, the fact that trainer Jerry Hollendorfer is shipping him back east to contest another major stakes race is very encouraging, as is the fact that Iron Fist will be carrying only 117 pounds, seven less than Frosted and five less than Gimme Da Lute and Upstart.
As for Island Town, he didn’t fire over a sloppy track in the Indiana Derby (gr. II) two starts back, but he’s won three straight races on fast tracks, including the Matt Winn Stakes (gr. III) and Smarty Jones Stakes (gr. III). In the latter race, held at Parx, he raced near the lead and drew off decisively to win by 6 ¾ lengths, and while he’ll need to take another step forward to defeat a field of this caliber, drawing post position two should allow him to save ground while staying on or near the lead, and if the track is speed-favoring, that could upgrade his chances a lot.
To recap, Gimme Da Lute is my top selection to win regardless of how the track is playing, although a speed-favoring track would certainly enhance his chances. I’ll be paying very close attention on Saturday to see how the main track at Parx is playing, and if speed is doing well, then I believe Island Town, Iron Fist, and Upstart have good chances to stay close to the pace and ride the bias to strong finishes.
Now it’s your turn! Who do you like in the Pennsylvania Derby?
Saturday update: With the scratch of Gimme Da Lute, I'll take Iron Fist as my new selection. Given that Parx does seem to be playing in favor of speed today, and since Iron Fist's connections have expressed hope that Iron Fist will be on or near the lead today, I believe Iron Fist has a great chance to track the pace, take command in the homestretch, and hold off Frosted to score an upset victory. Good luck to all!
To help keep track of all the Breeders' Cup prep races, here is the link to Bloodhorse.com's Breeders' Cup news page. Also, here is the link to the currrent standings, entries, rules, and schedule for our "Road to the Breeders' Cup Classic" Handicapping Challenge. Enjoy the racing, everyone!
J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.