Money Talks in the Pennsylvania Derby

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:

#1 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.

#2 Improbable (8-5)

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."

#3 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.

#4 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 form.

#5 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.

#6 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 rivals.

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.

#7 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 quickly!


First: Mr. Money
Second: Improbable
Third: Spun to Run

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


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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

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