The September Grand Finale at Parx
-By Dick Jerardi
Big event days have become all the rage in horse racing over the last decade. And those “events” are not limited to tracks in Kentucky, New York, California and Florida.
No track outside of the behemoths has done a better job of maximizing its marquee event than Parx Racing. First, the Pennsylvania Derby was moved off Labor Day where it was constantly in the shadow of the Travers. Then, the Cotillion was moved to the same day as the PA Derby in 2012. As a result, the third or fourth Saturday of September every year has brought national focus to Parx.
Travers winner Will Take Charge won the PA Derby on his way to the 3-year-old championship in 2013.
After that, the “day” was clearly on its way, but went over the top in 2014 when Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome came to run in the PA Derby. The “Chrome” crowd and enthusiasm were unmatched in the recent history of the racetrack.
In 2016, Derby winner Nyquist and Preakness winner Exaggerator both contested the PA Derby just moments after the great filly Songbird ran her perfect record to 11-for-11 in the Cotillion.
Those two race cards generated a combined $20 million in handle, numbers that were previously unheard of at Parx. There was other racing around the country on those Saturdays, but the nation’s focus was clearly on Parx.
Last year, Bob Baffert, by far the most recognizable face in the sport, came to Parx for the first time with the favorites in each of the two big races. Abel Tasman finished second in the Cotillion, but was still named 3-year-old filly champion. West Coast clinched the 3-year-old male title with a dominant win in the PA Derby.
Baffert himself was everywhere at Parx during that week. He signed every autograph, posed for every picture, talked horses with whoever wanted to and, in one memorable sitting, hung with several of us at the steakhouse in the casino, telling stories deep into the night.
Baffert is not quite sure he will be making the trip this year, but he is sending McKinzie who was the possible Derby favorite in early March before sustaining a leg injury. Turned out Baffert had a rather worthy replacement in eventual Triple Crown winner Justify.
McKinzie has not raced since March 10, but Baffert does not seem concerned.
“Back to beast mode,” Baffert texted after McKinzie worked 7 furlongs in 1:24.2 on Sept. 5 at Del Mar. “On target for Parx.”
Baffert will be going for his third PA Derby since 2014, the year Bayern left California Chrome and the others gasping on his way to setting the track record for a mile and an eighth. Bayern would go on to capture that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park.
McKinzie will not be lacking competition. Bill Mott said last weekend at Saratoga that the always promising Hofburg is better than he has ever been. And D. Wayne Lukas, who won the PA Derby with Will Take Charge, is bringing Bravazo who never stops trying and was the only horse other than Justify to run in all three legs of the Triple Crown.
The PA Derby obviously could stand on its own merits, but the card is going to be greatly enhanced because the Cotillion will feature the lock 3-year-old filly champion Monomoy Girl, whose neck loss in her final start as a 2-year-old is the only thing keeping her from being unbeaten in nine career starts. All Monomoy Girl has done in 2018 is win four straight Grade I stakes, including the Ashland, Kentucky Oaks, Acorn and Coaching Club American Oaks.
When you put on two Grade I races with $1 million purses and are positioned on the calendar as last chance races for straight 3-year-olds and perfect preps for Breeders’ Cup races, you will attract the best of the best. And 2018 is proving that yet again.