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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.