Pennsylvania Derby is a Battle of Pacesetters

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) speed horse.

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 Show.

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
2nd: Reincarnate
3rd: Scotland
4th: Gilmore

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.

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