Will Nyquist Rebound in the Pennsylvania Derby?

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Get ready, everyone! On Saturday, Parx Racing will host a stellar twelve-race card that is highlighted by the $1,250,000 Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) and the $1,000,000 Cotillion Stakes (gr. I). The two races have drawn fantastic fields, particularly the Pennsylvania Derby, which is shaping up to be another leg of the Triple Crown thanks to the presence of Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner Nyquist and Preakness Stakes (gr.I) winner Exaggerator, as well as ten other talented colts.

Since this race is practically a mini-Kentucky Derby, let's go through the field in horse-by-horse fashion...

Awesome Slew (10-1): After getting burned up in a speed duel with Nyquist and American Freedom in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I), this son of Awesome Again rebounded with an eye-catching seven-length win in the Smarty Jones Stakes (gr. III) at Parx. However, he got a great trip setting an uncontested slow pace, and he also benefited by staying clear of the rail on a day when the inside seemed to be the worst part of the track. After drawing the rail in the Pennsylvania Derby, he'll likely have to gun for the lead to avoid getting swallowed up in traffic, and with plenty of other speed horses in the race, he's unlikely to get as good a trip as he did in the Smarty Jones.

Exaggerator (9-2): He's developed a reputation as a wet-track specialist following explosive wins in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), Preakness Stakes (gr.I), and Haskell Invitational (gr.I), with the latter effort being sandwiched by 11th-place finishes over fast tracks in the Belmont Stakes (gr.I) and Travers Stakes (gr. I). But significant to me is that Exaggerator has gotten fantastic pace setups in his big wins and very poor setups in his defeats; the Travers in particular was a race where the pace didn't collapse at all, making it very difficult for Exaggerator to make his sweeping run from the back of the pack. He's run some solid races on fast tracks in the past, and with plenty of pace in the Pennsylvania Derby, I think we'll see him rebound with a much-improved effort, although the generally speed-favoring nature of the Parx main track could make winning a challenge.

Summer Revolution (8-1): All three of his races so far have been at seven furlongs, but this son of Summer Bird has a decent pedigree for stretching out in distance, and he didn't run badly when fourth in the King's Bishop Stakes (gr. I) despite chasing a modest pace that favored the dominant winner Drefong. Summer Revolution has excellent early speed and figures to be involved in the early pace, but stretching out to nine furlongs while facing a top-class field could be a tough task.

Connect (12-1): A slow start forced this speedy colt to change his running style in the Travers Stakes, and he actually ran pretty well under the circumstances to finish sixth. He had previously won three straight races in impressive fashion, including the restricted Curlin Stakes at Saratoga, but might be in a little deep on Saturday and should face a lot of pace pressure.

Cupid (5-1): He's quietly compiled a solid record in Grade 2 company this year, winning the Rebel Stakes back in March and sweeping the Indiana Derby and West Virginia Derby in consecutive fashion this summer. He can be a bit rank, and doesn't always break well from the starting gate, but he's shown flashes of significant talent and might be the most dangerous of the front-runners. In the West Virginia Derby, he ran extremely wide throughout the race to avoid racing on the slower inner portion of the track, yet still recorded a final time that was good for a Beyer speed figure of 95. The runner-up, Whateverybodywants, returned to finish a solid third in the Super Derby (gr. III) earlier this month, and if a rail/speed bias should materialize at Parx this Saturday-a phenomenon that we've seen in the past on Pennsylvania Derby day-Cupid could prove to be very tough to catch.

Wild About Deb (20-1): This lightly-raced colt has placed in two graded stakes races, including a runner-up effort behind Awesome Slew in the Smarty Jones, but he's taking a big step up in class and will need to take a step forward. He might be capable of doing just that-he might have been compromised in the Smarty Jones by racing fairly close to the slow rail-but it's also worth noting that Parx-prepped horses don't have the best record in the Pennsylvania Derby.

Gun Runner (6-1): If you excuse two sub-par efforts on sloppy, sealed tracks, Gun Runner has never finished out of the trifecta in seven starts on fast tracks, and ran a huge race to finish third in the Travers despite racing wide every step of the way. With a great blend of tactical speed, acceleration, and finishing kick, Gun Runner should be able to put himself in a perfect position in the Pennsylvania Derby no matter what kind of pace scenario unfolds. I view him as one of the primary contenders to win.

My Man Sam (20-1): He showed a lot of promise earlier this year when finishing second in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), but finished well back in the Kentucky Derby and Travers. His late-running style could be well-suited to a fast pace in the Pennsylvania Derby, but I think this spot might be a little too deep for him.

Nyquist (5-2): After going unbeaten in his first eight starts, including wins in the Florida Derby (gr. I) and Kentucky Derby, he was beaten in both the Preakness and Haskell while dueling for the lead over sloppy, sealed tracks. Given time off after the Haskell, Nyquist has gone through a growth spurt and has put on weight, but has been training very well in preparation for this race, most recently going a mile in a solid 1:38 1/5. He's still unbeaten on unsealed tracks and is expected to revert to the pace-stalking tactics that worked so well in the Kentucky Derby; he'll be a short price in a big field, but might just be the best horse in the race.

Sunny Ridge (12-1): He finished ahead of Nyquist when third in the Haskell Invitational, but he benefited from a great pace setup while racing over a sloppy track, which he loves. Drawing post ten could be a challenge, since he probably doesn't have enough speed to sprint clear of his rivals and could be in for a wide trip. Sunny Ridge is an admirable colt, but this race looks like a tough task.

Discreet Lover (30-1): He's drawn even wider than Sunny Ridge and could be in for a similarly tricky trip since he prefers to race in mid-pack or drop back early on. He finished a solid third in the Ohio Derby earlier this year, but was beaten double-digit lengths in his two previous graded stakes attempts and will need to show improvement to contend for a spot in the superfecta.

Hit It Once More (20-1): This steadily-improving New York-bred colt lost his first five starts but has since won four of five, including the New York Derby and Albany Stakes against fellow New York-breds. His Beyer speed figures from those victories (102 and 97) were impressive, as were the margins by which he won, but those strong efforts came with the benefit of very, very easy leads. When forced to set a faster pace against open company in the Easy Goer Stakes in June, he faded to finish fourth by ten lengths, and since drawing post twelve could force him to gun for the lead, I think Hit It Once More could be vulnerable to regression.

Even though it's a rather uncreative opinion, my top four choices in the Pennsylvania Derby-in no particular order-are Exaggerator, Cupid, Gun Runner, and Nyquist. But in recent years, the Pennsylvania Derby has been dominated by well-bet runners, which makes playing the favorites more appealing.

Still, to make a significant score, we'll want to settle on just one or two horses to play on top, and this is where the possibility of a track bias comes into play. Parx can be an unpredictable track where major biases come and go, and I strongly recommend that you watch the races on Friday and Saturday to see how the track is playing. On a fair track, I think Nyquist and Gun Runner will get the best trips and run 1-2, but if the rail seems good and speed is carrying well, Cupid could become a very appealing play, particularly if he rises at all from his 5-1 morning line odds. And even though I believe Exaggerator can run well on a fast track, I would certainly upgrade his chances if the track comes up sloppy while simultaneously downgrading the chances of Nyquist and Gun Runner, who haven't shown their best form on wet tracks.

But if I had to pick just one horse to play in this race, without knowing how the track is playing, I would pick Gun Runner. Drawing post seven with a lot of speed to his inside should help him secure a great trip without losing too much ground, and his effort in the Travers was excellent. If a very fast pace unfolds-a distinct possibility thanks to Awesome Slew, Summer Revolution, Cupid, Nyquist, and Hit It Once More-Gun Runner could be poised to pounce from mid-pack and secure the biggest win of his career.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Pennsylvania Derby?


To help simplify the process of choosing and keeping track of everyone's prime horse selections in our 2016 Road to the Breeders' Cup Classic Handicapping Challenge, I would like to ask everyone to please submit their prime choice each week by leaving a special comment on the official blog page for the contest. This will greatly reduce the chances of any prime horse selections getting overlooked, and will also make it simpler to double-check the standings. Thanks, and enjoy the racing!


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.

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