By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
With a purse of $1 million, Saturday's Pennsylvania Derby (gr. I) at Parx
Racing has attracted some of the best three-year-olds currently in training. "Currently,"
of course, is the key word, since many of the division leaders (Country House, Sir
Winston, Game Winner, and now Maximum Security) will be sidelined for varying
amounts of time.
Still, the Pennsylvania Derby offers some appeal from a
handicapping perspective, and racing fans will appreciate that NBC Sports is showing
the Pennsylvania Derby and the accompanying Cotillion Stakes (gr. I) during a
broadcast that kicks off at 5:00 p.m. ET. Be sure to tune in and watch!
In the meantime, let's take a horse-by-horse look at the
Pennsylvania Derby field:
Math Wizard (6-1)
After a couple of so-so efforts against stakes company
during the spring, Math Wizard appeared poised for a strong summer after
battling his way to a runner-up effort in the Ohio Derby (gr. III). On that
occasion, Math Wizard was beaten just a half-length by the capable Owendale,
and his reward was a career-best 98 Beyer speed figure.
However, Math Wizard was no match for Mr. Money in the
Indiana Derby (gr. III), flattening out down the lane to finish third with a 93
Beyer, and he regressed again while facing Mr. Money in the West Virginia Derby
(gr. III), failing to launch a rally while struggling to sixth place. A fast
pace would help Math Wizard's chances, but quick fractions seem unlikely in
this small field, and his regressing form leaves me thinking a spot at the
bottom of the superfecta is the ceiling for his potential.
Trainer Bob Baffert will seek his fourth Pennsylvania
Derby victory in the last six years with Improbable, while jockey Mike Smith is
aiming for his third win in a row. With Improbable, they have a runner with the
necessary talent to win—now it's just a question of whether Improbable will
receive the trip he needs to excel.
Improbable has always shown ability, impressively winning
the Street Sense Stake and Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I) during an undefeated
two-year-old campaign. But Improbable has a couple of weak spots—he's sluggish
to get going in the early stages of his races, and he's at his best when racing
outside of horses, where he can rally unencumbered.
These chinks in Improbable's armor proved costly during
the spring. His inability to secure early positioning led to tricky trips and
runner-up finishes in the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) and Arkansas Derby (gr. I).
Despite these defeats, he started as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I)
and Preakness Stakes (gr. I), but on both occasions his early sluggishness left
him buried behind runners, and he never seriously threatened in either race.
After taking a little time off, Improbable returned to
action in the one-mile Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar and cruised to victory
by 2 ¾ lengths with a career-best 104 Beyer. But while this effort looks good
on paper, I was left feeling a little cold by his performance. Facing just
three rivals, Improbable was again sluggish to get going, failing to secure the
lead despite being urged during the opening sixteenth. And while his margin of
victory seems impressive on paper, he was under the whip down the lane to stay
clear of late-surging runner-up King Jack.
The small field for the Pennsylvania Derby should help
Improbable's chances, but drawing post two could be problematic. If he's
sluggish again, he could wind up boxed in behind a slow pace. Can he still win?
Absolutely, and don't be surprised if Mike Smith executes a bold mid-race move
to get the job done. But is Improbable a good bet at 8-5? On that count, I'm
inclined to answer "no."
Shanghai Superfly (30-1)
Shanghai Superfly gets in carrying just 117 pounds, but
this 30-1 shot is a 0-for-8 maiden who has been beaten four times at the
claiming level. With a career-best Beyer of 77, this late-running son of
Shanghai Bobby appears to be overmatched in the Pennsylvania Derby.
War of Will (4-1)
The Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner has been at his best
employing stalking tactics, but in a Pennsylvania Derby field without any clear
front-runners, he might just find himself setting the pace on Saturday.
This would be a blessing for many horses, but I'm not
sure War of Will is ready to capitalize. His form has tailed off sharply since the
Preakness Stakes, leaving handicappers to wonder what kind of a performance he'll
deliver in the Pennsylvania Derby.
I'll readily forgive War of Will's ninth-place finish in
the Belmont Stakes (gr. I); he was probably tired out after competing in all
three legs of the Triple Crown, and the 1 ½-mile distance likely stretched the
limits of his stamina. But I find it harder to overlook War of Will's
fifth-place finish in the July 27 Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) at Saratoga, in
which he faded tamely after securing an easy, uncontested lead.
On his best day, War of Will is a formidable force to
reckon with. But as the 124-pound highweight in a field with a couple promising
up-and-comers, I'm tempted to oppose him until he shows signs of returning to
Spun to Run (8-1)
Consistency has been Spun to Run's hallmark—he's cracked
the trifecta in each of his last seven starts—and he's also gotten faster through
the season. After employing pace-tracking tactics to finish a distant third
behind Maximum Security in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I), Spun to Run
stepped up his game significantly in the Smarty Jones Stakes (gr. III) at Parx
on September 2, rallying tenaciously to defeat the capable Gray Magician.
For his victory, Spun to Run earned a career-best 97
Beyer, but the visual impression he made was even better. After waiting behind
horses on the far turn, he split horses approaching the top of the stretch and
engaged in a terrific battle with the wide-rallying Gray Magician. The latter
had the upper hand through much of the stretch, but Spun to Run refused to lose
and battled back along the rail to stick his head in front at the finish line.
With his tactical speed and wide draw, Spun to Run
figures to enjoy an ideal trip in the Pennsylvania Derby. If he takes one more
step forward—and I think he can with a clean run—he can challenge the favorites
and certainly earn a spot in the exacta.
Mr. Money (2-1)
It seems like everyone and their brother is picking Mr.
Money to win the Pennsylvania Derby, so while it's not a creative opinion on my
part, I'm going to join the bandwagon.
Mr. Money showed some ability last year, finishing fourth
in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), but he's risen to an entirely different
level this spring and summer. The son of Goldencents has rattled off
consecutive victories in the Pat Day Mile (gr. III), Matt Winn Stakes (gr.
III), Indiana Derby (gr. III), and West Virginia Derby (gr. III), scoring by a
minimum of 2 ½ lengths (and by an average of five lengths) while posting solid
Beyers of 96, 99, 100, and 99.
If anything, Mr. Money has improved throughout the season.
In the West Virginia Derby, he tracked the pace before powering clear to score
by six lengths, with the graded stakes winner Plus Que Parfait among his beaten
Since the West Virginia Derby, Mr. Money has posted three
straight bullet workouts at Churchill Downs—a half-mile in :47 2/5 on August
21, five furlongs in 1:00 on August 28, and five furlongs in a blazing :58 1/5
on September 5. He appears to be thriving heading into the Pennsylvania Derby,
and as with Spun to Run, Mr. Money's tactical speed and wide draw should set
him up for a nice trip. This looks like the perfect spot for Mr. Money to step
up in class and nab a Grade 1 victory.
Maximum Security (Scratched)
The original morning line favorite suffered an episode of
colic on the day entries were drawn. While surgery was not required, he's
understandably skipping the Pennsylvania Derby. Here's hoping he recovers
First: Mr. Money
Third: Spun to Run
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Pennsylvania
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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.