By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Generally speaking, the $1
million Pennsylvania Derby (G1) at Parx Racing is a straightforward race to
handicap. While longshots occasionally prevail, on the whole favorites perform
to expectations and the results are predictable.
Since the Pennsylvania Derby
achieved Grade 1 status in 2017, four out of five editions have been won by the
betting favorite. This extends a trend that has been prevalent for a dozen
years; since 2011, favorites have gone 7-for-11 in the Pennsylvania Derby (the
race wasn't held in 2020).
The 2023 Pennsylvania Derby
lacks as accomplished a favorite as West Coast (2017), McKinzie (2018), Hot Rod
Charlie (2021), or Taiba (2022), who arrived at Parx with decorated resumes.
West Coast, McKinzie, and Taiba were proven Grade 1 winners, while Hot Rod
Charlie had placed in both the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Belmont (G1).
But just because the 2023 Pennsylvania
Derby favorite (whoever it winds up being) will boast a less accomplished
resume doesn't mean the race will be less predictable than usual. The 11-horse
field contains a fair number of longshots, and the top contenders bring
encouraging profiles to the table.
The question is, who will
actually start as the Pennsylvania Derby favorite? The morning line has pegged #11 Reincarnate (3-1) as the top choice
for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who has won the Pennsylvania Derby four
times since 2014. But I won't be surprised if #3 Saudi Crown (7-2) is favored by post time.
Let's start our analysis with
Reincarnate. The son of Good Magic has shown strong form on occasion, most
notably wiring the one-mile Sham (G3) over a quality field including future
Preakness (G1) winner National Treasure. And he was clearly best in the 1
1/8-mile Los Alamitos Derby last time out, counting Santa Anita Derby (G1)
third-place finisher Skinner and next-out Muckleshoot Derby winner Prince Abu
Dhabi among his beaten rivals.
Reincarnate enters the
Pennsylvania Derby off sharp workouts, but there may be a chink in his armor. All
three of Reincarnate's victories have come when he's set the pace or dueled for
the lead. He's been less effective when beaten to the lead; in between the Sham
and the Los Alamitos Derby, he finished third in the Rebel (G2), third in the
Arkansas Derby (G1), and 13th in the Kentucky Derby (G1) while employing
tactics ranging from pressing to closing.
If Reincarnate secures the
lead in the Pennsylvania Derby, he may prove difficult to run down. But getting
to the front from the far outside post position could prove tricky, especially
since the above-mentioned Saudi Crown is a formidable (and possibly superior)
Conditioned by two-time
Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox, Saudi Crown opened his career with a
couple of sprint victories on the Kentucky circuit. He was much the best in a
six-furlong maiden special weight at Keeneland, tracking the pace before finishing
strongly in the final furlong to score by 4 3/4 lengths. Then he wired a 6
1/2-furlong allowance at Churchill Downs by 1 3/4 lengths over Sweet Cherry
Pie, a capable sprinter who has since won the My Frenchman S. and finished
third in the Franklin-Simpson (G2).
Saudi Crown has lost both of
his starts since stretching out beyond sprint distances, but that doesn't
necessarily mean he can't stay longer trips. In the one-mile Dwyer S. (G3) at
Belmont Park, Saudi Crown set intense fractions of :22.47, :44.63, and 1:08.84
before battling gamely to finish second by a nose. The winning time of 1:35.37
translated to excellent speed figures of 106 (Beyer) and 104 (Brisnet), and
Saudi Crown pulled 11 lengths clear of the third-place finisher.
Saudi Crown was similar game
when stretching out around two turns for the 1 1/8-mile Jim Dandy S. (G2) at
Saratoga. Against a deep field of graded stakes winners, Saudi Crown carved out
the pace over a sloppy track before finishing second by a nose against reigning
champion two-year-old male Forte. The horses finishing behind Saudi Crown were
Arkansas Derby (G1) winner and Kentucky Derby (G1) third-place finisher Angel of
Empire, next-out Travers S. (G1) runner-up Disarm, and Withers S. (G3) winner Hit
The Jim Dandy came back fast
on the clock, with the winning time of 1:49.61 yielding speed figures of 105
(Beyer) and 106 (Brisnet). This means on both the Beyer and Brisnet scales,
Saudi Crown owns the two highest numbers in the Pennsylvania Derby field.
Saudi Crown has drawn inside
of Reincarnate, so my hope is to see Saudi Crown seize the early initiative and
take Reincarnate out of his game by going to the lead. Now, maybe Saudi Crown
is a sprinter destined to falter in his second start around two turns; it
certainly wouldn't be the first time we've seen that outcome unfold. But the
thought of getting 7-2 odds on a speed figure standout who has faced (and
beaten) quality competition over the Pennsylvania Derby distance is too
enticing to pass up.
Curlin S. winner #5 Scotland (6-1) and Smarty Jones S.
(G3) winner #10 Il Miracolo (8-1)
are logical contenders for the minor awards, while a longshot worth considering
is #8 Gilmore (10-1). Placed in the
Woody Stephens (G1), Pat Day Mile (G2), and Bay Shore (G3) racing around one
turn, Gilmore showed two-turn potential when finishing second in the 1 1/8-mile
El Camino Real Derby last winter and has improved since then. Fresh off victory
in a $62,500 allowance optional claimer racing one mile at Saratoga, Gilmore is
progressing in the right direction and may be capable of snatching a trifecta or
superfecta finish under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez.
1st: Saudi Crown
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.