-By Dick Jerardi
Frankie Pennington arrived at what was then called Philadelphia Park in 2004, just in time to get a front-row seat as the track’s then-dominant jockey Stewart Elliott was about to embark on the journey of a lifetime with Smarty Jones.
Now, Pennington, who has just become the first jockey in Parx Racing history to win the rider’s title for five consecutive years, is about to embark on his first journey into horse racing’s high society as his mount Maximus Mischief is preparing at Gulfstream Park for a run at the 2019 Kentucky Derby.
Pennington, 31, rode his first race on Sept. 8, 2003 at Thistledown in Ohio. After a month, he moved east to Penn National and then came to Parx. He has never left and has no plans on leaving. He will, however, be more than happy to take a day off here and there to be wherever Maximus Mischief might be running.
That he was around Elliott and watched “Smarty Mania” unfold can only help, as he gets a similar chance to what Elliott experienced with wins in the Derby and Preakness and to within a heartbreaking length of the Triple Crown.
“Stewie was the man,” Pennington remembered. “I looked up to Stewie a lot. He was winning a lot of races. I remember thinking that coming from Philly Park, it was just a dream for me, being a horse from here, a trainer (John Servis) from here. I remember being amazed.”
Now, it could be Pennington, Maximus Mischief and trainer Butch Reid, another Parx trifecta.
So, how hard is it to concentrate on the usual daily work when he knows that in five weeks or so, Maximus Mischief likely will make his three-year-old debut, with the Derby looming just over four months down the road?
“To actually be in that situation, having one of the top horses going towards the Derby trail, I still get excited,” Pennington said. “Sometimes, I got to think, is it really true?
“I’ll go through a normal day and then I (suddenly) think Maximus is over there. It gets me excited. That’s what we all work for, to get a horse like that.”
Maximus Mischief left Barn 4 for the long van ride to South Florida on Dec. 16, so Pennington isn’t so close to the unbeaten colt anymore.
“That’s what I told Butch, I’m like ‘Butch, you want me to take a ride on the van with him?’” Pennington said. “He was laughing. I also told him ‘look, if he ever goes to work and you want me to come down, I’d be more than happy to come down and work him.’”
Their time is coming. Meanwhile, Pennington just keeps winning races at Parx.
He will be about 40 wins clear at the end of the year for that fifth straight title. He will finish 2018 winning with 23 percent of his mounts, his best-ever percentage. He will also finish with a career-best $8,000 per start. He is closing in on 13,000 career mounts and 2,350 wins. His mounts have earned almost $65 million. And he may not have not ridden in any of the nationally-televised races, but neither had Elliott until 2004.
It is called horse racing, not jockey racing. Give a really good jockey the best horse and that horse is usually going to win. Pennington has been a really good jockey for a really long time. He gave Maximus Mischief a picture-perfect ride in the Dec. 1 Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct. That was Pennington’s first Grade II win. If Maximus Mischief is good enough, a Grade I win is coming soon for horse and rider.
Reid called Pennington this summer to ask him to work a two-year-old he really liked. The first time he worked Maximus Mischief, “my feet were by his ears trying to slow him down,” Pennington said.
Pennington knew instantly that Reid was not engaging in hyperbole. The big colt could run. He showed it in the morning. He has now shown it three times in the afternoon.
Now, Pennington finds himself watching some of the other top two-year-olds because it’s never too early to check out the competition.
“Maximus is a special horse,” Pennington said. “He’s the kind of horse, (if) you give him a task, he’s going to do everything to do it, which makes me ride with a lot of confidence when I’m on him.”
Whenever he could, Pennington watched all the big national races through the years, hoping—naturally—that one day everybody would be watching him on a horse with a chance. That time has come.