Will McKinzie Come Back a Winner in Pennsylvania Derby?

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

Is there such a thing as a post-Triple Crown "Triple Crown?" Maybe not, but the Haskell Invitational (gr. I), Travers Stakes (gr. I), and Pennsylvania Derby (gr. I) have certainly emerged as the three major post-Triple Crown prizes in recent years, pitting Triple Crown veterans against up-and-comers and talented horses that missed out on the spring classics.

Saturday's $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing is living up to its Grade 1 billing by attracting a strong and competitive field with plenty of options for handicappers to consider. Let's take a look at the entries....

#1 First Mondays: As a son of Curlin out of an Awesome Again mare, this lightly-raced colt is eligible to improve off his third-place finish in the Smarty Jones Stakes (gr. III) at Parx last month, which was only the third start of his career. But this is a very big step up in class, and with a career-best Beyer of 85, it could be difficult for him to improve enough to get on the board against a field of this caliber.

#2 Hofburg: In my opinion, Hofburg is something of an unknown quantity in the Pennsylvania Derby field. His bare form lines since jumping into stakes company are solid—second in the Florida Derby (gr. I), seventh in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), third in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), and first in the restricted Curlin Stakes—but on the other hand, I think you can question the overall strength of those performances. For example, I think Hofburg benefited from rallying into fast fractions in both the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, while in the Belmont Stakes, he never really threatened to win and had to work hard to secure third place in a race where Triple Crown winner Justify tired out the pace horses and a couple respected contenders failed to seriously fire.

Hofburg's five-length victory in the Curlin Stakes was a step in the right direction, at least from the perspective that he did win, but he only beat four horses of questionable quality over a sloppy, sealed track, with huge gaps between each finisher. Throw in the fact that Hofburg missed the Travers Stakes (gr. I) due to an illness, and I find him less than appealing as the 3-1 second choice on the Pennsylvania Derby morning line. I hope to try and beat him in the exacta while recognizing that his overall talent could still be enough to get him into the trifecta.

#3 Instilled Regard: Formerly trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, Instilled Regard has kept good company throughout his career, but hasn't run since finishing fourth in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and is set to make his debut for new trainer Chad Brown.

The lengthy layoff since the Derby is a bit of a question mark, though Instilled Regard has been training steadily in preparation for his return, so I'm not too concerned about that. The bigger question in my mind is whether Instilled Regard is fast enough to compete at this level—in the Kentucky Derby, he benefited from rallying into a very quick early pace, while his previous two efforts were disappointing fourth-place efforts in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II). He also seems to be more of a deep closer as of late, losing some of the tactical speed that he showcased earlier in his career. I respect what he's accomplished, but I suspect he'll be bet down based off his fourth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, and without the benefit of running 1 ¼ miles over a sloppy track in a fast-paced race, I think it could be tough for Instilled Regard to repeat that effort in the Pennsylvania Derby.

#4 King Zachary: Trained by Dale Romans, King Zachary hasn't been the most consistent colt, but he has nevertheless shown flashes of serious talent, most notably winning the Matt Winn Stakes (gr. III) by 4 ¾ lengths with a 98 Beyer. But following that eye-catching victory, he could only manage a dull fourth behind Axelrod and Trigger Warning in the Indiana Derby (gr. III), and while he rebounded reasonably well to finish fourth in the Travers Stakes (gr. I) last time out, that was more of a "pick up the pieces" performance as he dropped back to last place early on and mostly just passed tiring rivals to grab the last spot in the superfecta. He might be capable of doing the same in the Pennsylvania Derby, and if he stays at 20-1 he could be worth including in the bottom of the exotics, but overall I'm leaning against him on Saturday.

#5 Core Beliefs: Aside from a fourth-place finish in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I), where he stumbled a bit at the start and wound up farther off the pace than usual, Core Beliefs hasn't really done anything wrong in seven starts, most notably overcoming a wide trip to win the Ohio Derby (gr. III). Overall, he's pretty versatile in terms of running style and showed talent early on while finishing third in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), 1 ¼ lengths in front of Instilled Regard.

Assuming that Core Beliefs gets off to a better start in the Pennsylvania Derby than he did in the Haskell, I think he has enough tactical speed to secure an ideal trip stalking the pace or rating in mid-pack, and from there it would come as no surprise to see him finish on the board at a solid price.

#6 Axelrod: This son of Warrior's Reward has come a long way this season, starting off as a turf sprinter before switching to dirt and eventually scoring back-to-back victories in the Indiana Derby (gr. III) and the Smarty Jones Stakes (gr. III). But the waters get considerably deeper in the Pennsylvania Derby—he's never faced a field remotely like this in the past—and in terms of Beyer and BRIS speed figures, he still has some ground to make up on the top contenders. As the 5-1 third choice on the morning line, I'm tempted to take a stand against him.

#7 Mr Freeze: This lightly-raced up-and-comer is a half-length away from being unbeaten in four starts, and at first glance, his powerful victory in the West Virginia Derby (gr. III) at Mountaineer last month would make him a strong contender in the Pennsylvania Derby—after all, he won by eight lengths with a 102 Beyer.

However, I think it's important to note that Mountaineer was playing very fast and speed-favoring on the day of the West Virginia Derby, and a review of the replay reveals that Mr Freeze was able to secure a very easy lead, setting fractions of :24.02 and :47.88 while maintaining a slim advantage over a tightly-bunched field. In the end, the horses running 1-2-3 after the first quarter-mile occupied the same positions at the finish line, and while Mr Freeze's margin of victory was eye-catching, he was also hard-urged through the homestretch, so it's not like he won under wraps.

In essence, I think Mr Freeze benefited from a perfect trip in the West Virginia Derby, so although there's no doubt he has talent, I'm not convinced that he'll repeat an effort of that magnitude while facing significantly tougher competition in the Pennsylvania Derby, especially if he fails to secure another easy lead.

#8 McKinzie: No matter how you slice it, McKinzie is the horse to beat in the Pennsylvania Derby and the horse that everyone will have their eyes on, whether they're playing him or opposing him. Trained by Bob Baffert, who has won the Pennsylvania Derby twice in the last four years, McKinzie showed a ton of promise early in his career and was viewed as Baffert's top Triple Crown hopeful until—well—the future Triple Crown winner Justify emerged on the scene.

Much of McKinzie's reputation stems from the tremendous race he ran in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) on March 10th. Facing off against the two-time Grade 1 winner Bolt d'Oro, McKinzie pushed a fast pace, hooked up with Bolt d'Oro around the turn, and held off his rival to prevail by a head in a dramatic stretch drive, though McKinzie was subsequently disqualified for causing interference in a controversial call that was widely debated by racing fans and handicappers.

But whether McKinzie officially won the race or not is beside the point; the point is, he held his own against a top-class colt and ran an eye-catching 101 Beyer while doing so. Unfortunately, McKinzie was sidelined shortly after that race with a minor injury, so the Pennsylvania Derby will mark his first start in just over six months.

Is the long layoff a concern? Certainly. But according to DRF Formulator, Baffert has gone 4-for-11 (36% wins, $3.45 ROI) with horses running in graded stakes route races off layoffs of 180 days or more. Furthermore, McKinzie has been training as though he's preparing to face Secretariat, breezing once every six days or so since the beginning of August, a streak of nine breezes that includes two at five furlongs, one at six furlongs, and three at seven furlongs, topped off by a fast half-mile in :47 flat on September 17th. I'd be surprised if McKinzie comes up short after such a solid series of workouts.

For good measure, McKinzie has drawn very well in post position eight, which should allow the son of Street Sense to utilize his tactical speed and tractability to work out a perfect trip. If the pace is slow, he can stay close and press the leaders; if the pace is quick, he can settle further off the pace and come running late. Even off the long layoff, I view McKinzie as the most likely winner of the Pennsylvania Derby.

#9 Trigger Warning: Give Trigger Warning some credit for his determined near-misses in both the Ohio Derby (gr. III) and the Indiana Derby (gr. II), but when he took on the cream of this year's three-year-old crop in the Travers Stakes (gr. I), he wasn't able to seriously challenge despite a near-perfect trip. The comment on Trigger Warning's performance in the Equibase result chart tells it all—"Saved ground [to] no avail." Trigger Warning broke beautifully from post position one and had a very clean run saving ground every step of the way, but when the real running began, he couldn't keep up and steadily retreated to finish sixth. I get the impression that Trigger Warning might be at his best going shorter distances (perhaps a flat mile?) against easier competition.

#10 Bravazo: Three stakes races as a two-year-old, the Derby prep season, all three legs of the Triple Crown, the Haskell, the Travers—Bravazo has danced almost every major dance so far and has maintained his form remarkably well, most recently finishing a solid third in the Travers while overcoming a slightly troubled trip in a race dominated by the two pacesetters.

Bravazo can be a tricky horse to analyze because he's been known to turn in disappointing efforts without obvious excuses, but the more I've watched Bravazo race, the more I get the impression that he doesn't care for running in between or behind horses, which could explain why he faded to finish sixth in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) after getting trapped on the rail for most of the race.

It could also explain some of the quirks we've seen from Bravazo in some of his stronger efforts—remember the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), where he dropped back around the far turn while racing behind the leaders, but re-rallied when in the clear to fall just a half-length short of catching Justify? He did the same thing in the Travers, falling back like he was out of gas when racing in between horses on the far turn, only to find another gear once clear and charge late for third place.

With this in mind, drawing the far outside post position should be perfect for Bravazo, allowing him to stay out of trouble and run his own race, like he did when finishing a strong second in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I) two starts back. I suppose eventually his busy schedule might catch up with him—he's averaged one start per month dating back to last August—but he hasn't shown any signs of regression yet, and I view him as a very logical candidate to finish in the Pennsylvania Derby exotics.


1st: McKinzie
2nd: Bravazo
3rd: Core Beliefs

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


Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contests page—there's a new challenge every week!


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.

Recent Posts

More Blogs