Will West Coast Win Again in the Pennsylvania Derby?

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

Few races have climbed as high in recent years as the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby (gr. I) at Parx Racing. The nine-furlong race for three-year-olds has attracted so many accomplished runners as of late that the race will be run as a Grade 1 for the first time this year, and the opportunity to chase a Grade 1 prize while staying in age-restricted company has brought a top-notch field into play for the 2017 edition of the race.

But before we take a look at each horse in the field, I'd like to mention that Parx can be a rather quirky track with the potential for producing strong biases of all sorts. On some days, speed (and horses racing on the rail) dominate race after race; on other days, the rail is the slowest part of the track and horses repeatedly rally wide from off the pace. As a result, watching the earlier races on the Pennsylvania Derby card could be a key component in handicapping the race. 

That said, let's take a look at the entries!

#1 Timeline: After rattling off four straight wins to start his career, including easy 3 ½-length victories in the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. III) and the Pegasus Stakes (gr. III), Timeline was sent off as the favorite in the nine-furlong Haskell Invitational (gr. I), a race in which pretty much everything went wrong. A slow start left Timeline boxed in behind horses heading into the first turn-an uncomfortable position for a speedy colt that likes to run on or near the lead-and he was simultaneously compromised by racing toward the inside on a day when the rail seemed like the worst part of the track. In addition, an early move to take the lead resulted in Timeline getting caught up in some fairly testing mid-race fractions, so with all of this in mind I believe his fifth-place finish can be forgiven.

By drawing the rail in the Pennsylvania Derby, Timeline could be perfectly positioned to capitalize on a speed/rail-favoring track if such a bias turns up on Saturday, as it did for the 2014 Pennsylvania Derby. Then again, on a fair track (or one favoring outside runners), Timeline will likely find himself in a very difficult position, being hounded from the start by Outplay, Irish War Cry, and possibly West Coast. Generally speaking, I have a lot of respect for Timeline's speed and the talent he's flashed so far, but keeping an eye on how the track is playing could be the key to analyzing his win potential. 

#2 Outplay: After taking four starts to break his maiden, this Todd Pletcher-trained son of Bernardini has won three of his last four starts, including a gate-to-wire romp against restricted competition in the nine-furlong Curlin Stakes at Saratoga. He's 3-for-3 when securing a clear early lead and should be forwardly placed while breaking from post two, but he may have to run hard to beat Timeline to the early lead, and it's worth noting that Outplay has never won when beaten to the lead, and those defeats include a distant third-place finish behind West Coast in the Easy Goer Stakes two starts back. Outplay seems like a promising colt, but I'll lean against him in this spot.

#3 Watch Me Whip: This lightly-raced colt from the barn of Dale Romans ran well enough when fourth in the Indiana Derby (gr. III), but his career-best Beyer speed figure is only an 85 and his lone win came in a seven-furlong maiden race at Keeneland. He's improving and could be coming late if the early pace is fast, but this race looks like a tough spot for him overall. 

#4 West Coast: In recent years, horses that ran in the Travers Stakes (gr. I) have dominated the Pennsylvania Derby, and that trend could certainly continue this year with West Coast. Trained by Bob Baffert, who won the 2014 Pennsylvania Derby with Bayern, West Coast has never finished out of the exacta in seven starts and has improved in leaps and bounds this summer while winning four straight races, including the Easy Goer Stakes, the Los Alamitos Derby (gr. III), and the Travers Stakes (gr. I). Even more impressive, West Coast has been effective with a wide variety of running styles, winning the Travers in gate-to-wire fashion and producing big rallies from off the pace in the Los Alamitos Derby and Easy Goer Stakes.

With Beyers of 108, 100, and 99 in his last three starts, West Coast is clearly the fastest horse on paper in the Pennsylvania Derby field, and his versatility could be an asset in a race with an uncertain pace scenario and the possibility for an unpredictable track bias. He'll be toting the top weight of 124 pounds and won't be coming in under the radar like he was for the Travers Stakes, but with his rising form and proven Grade 1 talent, West Coast is clearly the horse to beat. 

#5 Irap: West Coast's biggest challenge could very well come from Irap, who finished third in the Travers Stakes after making a big move around the far turn. You can make a case that the ten-furlong distance of the Travers was just a bit too far for Irap, who could appreciate the cutback in distance to nine furlongs, but it's also worth noting that Irap got a very wide trip in the Travers and ran about seven lengths farther than West Coast, suggesting that Irap could have finished much closer with a better trip.

You can't knock the caliber of competition that Irap has faced, for two starts back he crushed Colonelsdarktemper by five lengths while winning the Indiana Derby (gr. III), and that colt came back to win the West Virginia Derby (gr. III) in his next start. Even better, Irap overcame a tough trip to win the Ohio Derby (gr. III) three starts back over Girvin, the next-out winner of the Haskell Invitational (gr. I). 

The main difficulty for Irap could be working out a good trip, as his preferred running style-settling in mid-pack before rallying on the far turn-tends to ensure that he receives a wide trip, conceding an advantage to his ground-saving rivals. With a perfect trip, I can envision Irap turning the tables on West Coast, but that trip could be hard to come by in this field, and to bet on that chance I'd want a higher price than his 3-1 morning line odds.

#6 Talk Logistics: He hasn't won a race since breaking his maiden at Parx last July, but Talk Logistitcs has finished in the superfecta  in nine of his ten starts while competing in a number of quality graded stakes races. Three starts back, he was second to Timeline in the Pegasus Stakes (gr. III), and last time out he ran second to the promising Pavel in the Smarty Jones Stakes (gr. III) at Parx, earning a respectable 94 Beyer. He's 20-1 on the morning line, but he's consistent and will carry just 117 pounds, seven less than West Coast and five less than Timeline, Irap, and Irish War Cry. I wouldn't be surprised if he gets involved for a spot in the superfecta. 

#7 Game Over: After finishing fifth behind Irap in the Ohio Derby (gr. III) two starts back, Game Over faced somewhat easier competition in the nine-furlong West Virginia Derby (gr. III) and ran an excellent race to finish second, beaten just a length despite racing closer to a slow rail than most of his rivals. He's lightly-raced and might still be improving, and with the right setup he could be one to consider for the superfecta at a bit of a price.

#8 Irish War Cry: Thus far, Irish War Cry's career has been one of major highlights sandwiched between significant disappointments. On his best day, he's among the fastest three-year-old colts in the country, posting a trio of triple-digit Beyers while winning the Wood Memorial (gr. II) and Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) and finishing second in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). But he was also soundly beaten in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) without any obvious excuses, and last time out he was fourth in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I) after tracking the early pace.

Certainly Irish War Cry appears to be the wild card in the Pennsylvania Derby, given how difficult it is to predict when he'll run his best race. I'm inclined to forgive Irish War Cry's performance in the Haskell and chalk it up to racing too close to a very contested pace (he did leave fellow pacesetters Timeline and Battle of Midway far behind), but a similar trip could be in the works this Saturday with Timeline and Outplay also expected to show speed. 

As with Timeline, analyzing Irish War Cry's win potential could depend on how the track is playing. A speed/rail bias would favor Timeline while putting Irish War Cry at a significant disadvantage, while a track favoring outside runners could put Irish War Cry in the perfect position. Analyzing the track and then using one colt or the other, and not both, might be the way to go for the exotics.

#9 Term of Art: He's danced pretty much every dance dating back to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) and has picked up a Grade 3 win and a couple of third-place finishes along the way, but overall he's found the competition at the Grade 1 level to be a bit too deep and he was soundly beaten by West Coast in the Los Alamitos Derby (gr. III) on July 15th, his most recent start.

#10 Giuseppe the Great: This son of Lookin at Lucky has placed in a couple of Grade 2 events this year, including the nine-furlong Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga, but he was no match for West Coast or Irap when finishing sixth in the Travers and will likely need to take a step forward to be a factor against this caliber of competition. 

So let's take all of these thoughts and condense them into something simpler. In essence, I think that analyzing how the track is playing could be the key to making a nice score on the race, and could help us separate contenders with similar running styles, such as Timeline and Irish War Cry.

But if I had to pick one horse to win without any knowledge of how the track might play, I would have to side with West Coast. It's not the most creative opinion, and he'll probably be a short price, but I've been a fan all year and have a lot of respect for his talent and versatility. Look for Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith to take advantage of West Coast's versatility and work out a perfect trip. For the exotics, I would focus strongly on Irap and either Timeline or Irish War Cry (probably not both of them), with respect to Talk Logistics and Game Over as longshots that could potentially finish in the superfecta. 

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


The Unlocking Winners Road to the Breeders' Cup Classic Handicapping Challenge is back for a third consecutive year! Please be sure to post all entries, prime horses, and stable additions on the official contest page. 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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