PERFECT PENNSYLVANIA DERBY DAY
By Dick Jerardi
Perfect rarely happens in life or at the race track. Perfect happened last Saturday at Parx on Pennsylvania Derby Day.
It was a gloriously brilliant day with 13 races that stretched over 6 1/2 hours. The total handle ($13,799,491) broke the old track record set in 2014 by 30 percent. The results were formful and wild, with 1-20 shots and 108-1 shots in the winner’s circle.
Some of the biggest names in the sport won the three major stakes races, but Parx jockeys and trainers were serious players in four of the other five stakes.
The two best performances were by 9-10 Hot Rod Charlie in the Pennsylvania Derby and 1-20 Jackie’s Warrior in the Gallant Bob. Each will be headed to DelMar for the Breeders’ Cup Classic and BC Sprint respectively.
Hot Rod Charlie arrived a week before the Derby. Stabled next to his constant companion Lava Man (claimed for $50,000, won $5 million) in Scott Lake’s Barn 2, HRC had been great and unlucky at the same time during a campaign that began in January. The colt had never run a bad race, but circumstance and disqualification from first in the Haskell had kept him from a Grade I win.
After leading all the way under Flavien Prat and winning the Pa. Derby by a decisive 2 1/4 lengths, Hot Rod Charlie finally had his Grade I win for his eclectic ownership group and trainer Doug O’Neill. His career-best Beyer speed figure of 111 stamps him as a major contender for the Classic.
“Charlie is a rock star,’’ O’Neill said. “I’m just a roadie but I am a pumped roadie, that’s for sure.”
With good reason.
“When you have speed and stamina and class, you can do some crazy, cool things,’’ O’Neill said. “He displayed today that he has got some special qualities that, if he stays injury-free, could lead to big stuff in November. I think he can be a big force in the Breeders’ Cup.’’
The colt cornered poorly into the stretch and came out close to Midnight Bourbon who had been chasing all the way. There was an inquiry and objection from Ricardo Santana who rode Midnight Bourbon. But there was no change. Nor should there have been. Midnight Bourbon had the length of the stretch to get by and was losing ground at the finish.
As good as Hot Rod Charlie was and he was really good, Jackie’s Warrior was perhaps even more dazzling with a blowout win in the Gallant Bob. Now, 8-for-9 with a neck loss in one-turn races, the son of Maclean’s Music never gave four overmatched foes a chance, opening up on the backstretch and being geared down in the stretch by Joel Rosario for trainer Steve Asmussen. The margin was 6 3/4 lengths, but it could have been anything. Jackie’s Warrior got a 110 Beyer.
“He’s very exciting to watch,’’ Asmussen said. “What a very special horse he’s been. He’s run some game races and obviously, we’re hoping it’s the ideal prep for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.’’
The deadly Asmussen-Santana combination was deserving winners in the Cotillion with the ultra-consistent Clairiere. Running in her eighth consecutive graded stakes, Clairiere is now 9-for-9 in the top four and, just like Hot Rod Charlie, she got her breakthrough Grade I win when she came rolling off the far turn and blew by the leaders in the stretch to win by 2 1/2 lengths as the 5-2 favorite.
Clairiere was not the best horse on the card, but there was no disputing she was the best bred. By seven-time Grade I winner, two-time Horse of the Year and $10 million earner Curlin out of $2 million earner Cavorting (three Grade I wins and three more Grade II), she has always run like a Grade I winner. The Cotillion made it official.
Parx-based horses ran 1-3 in the Turf Monster and Greenwood Cup, the other graded stakes on the card. Parx horses won the two Pennsylvania-bred stakes that began and ended the run of eight consecutive stakes. And the Parx Dirt Mile had the wildest ending of the day.
As an 8-year-old, Hollywood Talent ran third in the 2019 Turf Monster behind the newly-minted Parx Hall of Famer Pure Sensation. Seemingly headed in the wrong direction when entered for an $8,000 claiming race last November, trainer Juan Vazquez nonetheless decided to claim the horse.
Winless in six starts since then and apparently way off his best form, Hollywood Talent was 108-1 in the Turf Monster. But the now 10-year-old, always in a good spot under Santana, running on softer ground that he clearly loved, flew at the finish to win by 1 1/4 lengths,
It was Vazquez who gave the Panamanian Santana his American start in 2012 at Delaware Park and the wonderful jockey paid Vazquez back with a win he will never forget.
The Parx-based Admiral Abe, the $25,000 claim that has earned $381,012 since, looked home in midstretch at 23-1, but got tired late and settled for a terrific third.
Jamie Ness, who has dominated the Parx trainer standings for two years running, had one graded stakes win in his career. He now has two after Magic Michael came from nowhere under Frankie Pennington to run them all down in the Greenwood Cup. This was the horse’s seventh win since being claimed by Ness for $30,000 last November at Churchill Downs. And the biggest.
“You know, we are local,’’ Ness said. “A big day. Took a little bit of a shot here but the horse seems to do well over this track. We have been pointing to this race for two months. It came up a little stronger than we thought it would. But we are here, took a shot and my jock knows this track really well. I think he won the race for me today.’’
Ness and Pennington also teamed up to win the Alphabet Soup, the race after the Pa. Derby. Pennington was chill much of the way on You Must Chill, but when the horse saw daylight in the stretch, he came with a huge run to catch and pass the Parx-based Wait for It to win by 1 1/2 lengths.
The amazing Chub Wagon made it 10-for-11 when she won the Plum Pretty, her first two-turn race. It was a strangely-run race as Chub Wagon was held back in second by Jomar Torres behind a tepid pace. But she opened up on the far turn and had enough to hold off a late run by Vault and the great finisher Rosario.
Parx Hall of Fame trainer Lupe Preciado has done a wonderful job keeping Chub Wagon in top form despite a very busy schedule that most recently included three races in 33 days
The most exciting finish of the day was in the Parx Dirt Mile which had three million-dollar earners that ended up finishing 1-2-3. Looked like 4-5 Silver State had the race won for Asmussen-Santana when he went by Mind Control by a half-length in deep stretch. But Mind Control, trained by Todd Pletcher and ridden by John Velazquez, quite possibly the greatest jockey/trainer combo in history, came again to win it by a head. Warrior’s Charge, owned by Parx regular Ten Strike Racing, finished a solid third.
When the day was over, the only regret was that we will have to wait a year to do it all over again. Whatever goes down on Pa. Derby Day 2022, it will be hard to equal or top this day. But we all keep showing up to find out what is going to happen next and, every once in a great while, we experience perfection.