By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
The $1 million Pennsylvania
Derby (G1) at Parx Racing has been drawing strong fields for years, and its
rise to Grade 1 status has only strengthened its position as a key Breeders'
Cup Classic (G1) prep for elite members of the three-year-old division.
Saturday's renewal of the 1
1/8-mile race is missing division leader Epicenter (who is training up to the
Breeders' Cup), but four Grade 1 winners have showed up to battle for the rich
purse, and eight of the 11 entrants are veterans of the Triple Crown.
At first glance, #5 Cyberknife (3-1) looks like the
horse to beat. The improving son of Gun Runner is the most accomplished horse
in the Pennsylvania Derby field and enters in career-best form. During the
spring, he won the Arkansas Derby (G1) by 2 3/4 lengths, counting next-out
Kentucky Oaks (G1) winner Secret Oath among his beaten rivals.
faltered to finish 18th in the Kentucky Derby (G1), but he bounced back with a
gritty victory in the Matt Winn S. (G3) and then set a track record when
nabbing the Haskell S. (G1) by a head over Grade 1 winners #8 Taiba (5-2) and Jack Christopher. The latter colt returned to
win the H. Allen Jerkens S. (G1), flattering the Haskell form.
Cyberknife most recently
came home second behind Epicenter in the Travers S. (G1) at Saratoga, edging #1 Zandon (5-1) by a nose for runner-up
honors. Cyberknife has come back to post a couple of workouts at Churchill
Downs for high-percentage trainer Brad Cox and warrants plenty of respect in
the Pennsylvania Derby.
But let's not overlook
Taiba, who arguably ran a better race than Cyberknife when finishing second in
the Haskell. Whereas Cyberknife benefited from a ground-saving trip one month
after his Matt Winn score, Taiba rallied outside in his first start off a 2
1/2-month break. Ground loss and fitness may have been the deciding factors in
Taiba's Haskell defeat.
During the spring, Taiba
posted a powerful pace-tracking victory in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) racing 1
1/8 miles at Santa Anita, winning by 2 1/4 lengths with a 111 Brisnet Speed
rating higher than Cyberknife's career-best 105 rating. The Santa Anita Derby was
only Taiba's second start and his first try running long, making his
performance all the more remarkable. Taiba has trained up a storm since the
Haskell and figures to move forward in the Pennsylvania Derby, setting the
stage for victory under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith
For exotic wagers, the
above-mentioned Zandon is a must-use contender. Never out of the trifecta in
seven starts (including six at the Grade 1 and Grade 2 level), Zandon rallied
to a runaway Blue Grass S. (G1) triumph during the spring and followed up with
a gallant third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby (G1). He continued to
compete with aplomb during the summer at Saratoga, coming home second behind
Epicenter in the Jim Dandy S. (G2) prior to finishing within a nose of Cyberknife
in the Travers.
Rounding out the list of
Grade 1 winners in the Pennsylvania Derby is #11 White Abarrio (8-1), who posted comfortable victories in the
Holy Bull S. (G3) and Florida Derby (G1) during the winter at Gulfstream Park.
But White Abarrio is 4-for-4 at Gulfstream and 0-for-4 at all other tracks, and
he'll need to bounce back from a seventh-place finish in the Haskell if he's
going to turn the tables on Cyberknife and Taiba at Parx Racing.
One arguably underrated colt
worth supporting is #7 Tawny Port (6-1),
winner of Keeneland's Lexington S. (G3) prior to finishing seventh in the
Kentucky Derby. Tawny Port's post-Derby campaign kicked off with a victory over
White Abarrio and next-out Belmont Derby (G1) winner Classic Causeway in the
Ohio Derby (G3), after which Tawny Port finished third in the Jim Dandy. In the
latter race, Tawny Port didn't get the clearest run inside of rivals, but
nevertheless finished just two lengths behind Epicenter and half a length
We also have to acknowledge #6 We the People (12-1) as a pacesetting threat. The
Pennsylvania Derby isn't exactly stuffed with speed on paper, so We the People
is eligible to shake loose on an uncontested lead and outrun expectations. He
dominated the 1 1/8-mile Peter Pan S. (G3) during the spring by 10 1/4 lengths,
then ran fourth in the Belmont S. (G1) and second in the West Virginia Derby
(G3) while posting triple-digit Brisnet Speed ratings.
On the other hand, We the
People has finished behind #4
Skippylongstocking (10-1) in each of his last two starts.
Skippylongstocking achieved a classic placing when third against a strong field
in the Belmont and subsequently employed pace-tracking tactics to edge We the
People in the West Virginia Derby, so this improving colt may have the speed to
sit a favorable trip in the Pennsylvania Derby. Inclusion in superfecta wagers
is a must.
4th: Tawny Port
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, videographer, voice actor, 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.