Reprinted from The Racing Biz, by Frank Vespe. Virginia residents can bet the big race via one of the VEA’s three on line partner companies — TVG.com, XPressbet.com and TwinSpires.com. Virginia-Bred Stakes Day at Laurel Park is the same afternoon.
For most of its 40-year history, the Pennsylvania Derby has been a second-tier race for the three-year-old set. Winners like Handsome Mike and Timber Reserve — nice enough horses but not on anyone’s top runners list — dot the race’s history.
That’s changed in the last few years, however. The last three winners include Will Take Charge, the 2013 Eclipse Award winner as champion three-year-old colt; Bayer, who followed up his Bensalem win with a triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Classic; and, last year, Frosted, who this year has won a pair of Grade 1 events.
What’s more, if there was any question about the status of Parx Racing’s signature event, the 2016 edition seems certain to answer it. Scheduled to face the starter are Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, Preakness and Haskell winner Exaggerator, and Gun Runner, who was third in the Kentucky Derby and owns three other graded stakes wins. They’ll be joined by an accomplished supporting cast including the talented Cupid, up-and-coming Awesome Slew, and Haskell show horse Sunny Ridge.
Nyquist figures to be the favorite when the gates open, but there are plenty of ways go in this one.
- Awesome Slew (10-1) — Paco Lopez/Eddie Plesa, Jr. — Disappointed in the G1 Haskell but rebounded with the kind of performance his connections thought he had in winning G3 Smarty Jones over the strip. Paco Lopez — 28 percent at Parx — is signed on to ride again, and this is an improving runner who still has some upside. Best shot at the money is to sit off other speed and pounce — which he’s done before — but rail post compromises that chance.
- Exaggerator (9-2) — Kent Desormeaux/Keith Desormeaux — The bad news is that this Curlin colt has finished 11th in two of his last three starts, both times as the favorite. The good news: he’s won two Grade 1 races in his last four. Let’s toss the Travers — his trainer’d been concerned how he’d trained up there anyway — and say that this guy’s best puts him right there, and there looks to be sufficient speed ahead to give him the target he wants to run at. He rates a big shot here.
- Summer Revolution (8-1) — Mike Smith/Rudy Rodriguez — Belmont-winning sire Summer Bird suggests the 9-furlong trip is in his range — but this is a tough spot, and we mean, a really tough spot, to make his two-turn debut. Mike Smith in the irons won’t hurt here, and really, he hasn’t done much wrong to date, even when a decent fourth in the King’s Bishop. There’s reason to think this Rudy Rod trainee will be heard from in races of consequence before it’s all said and done — just not sure it’s right here, right now.
- Connect (12-1) — Javier Castellano/Chad Brown — If you know how to interpret Arrogate’s ridiculous Travers performance — and what it means to runners like this one, who was beaten 21 lengths and yet finished mid-pack — that puts you ahead of most of us. He was six lengths behind #7 Gun Runner in that tilt, so he’ll need to figure out how to close that gap here, and he is likely to be forwardly placed in a race that has some lick. But on the other hand, you’re getting 12-1 on a Chad Brown trainee (25 percent strike rate in ’16) ridden by Javier Castellano (23 percent with the trainer), so you’re being rewarded for the risk you take. A puncher’s chance?
- Cupid (5-1) — Rafael Bejarano/Bob Baffert — Astute ride by Bejarano last out to take advantage of outer bias at MNR in romping to four-length win in the G2 WV Derby. This guy’s yet another who looks to be in the mix early, where he’s done his best work. Note that trainer Baffert pretty much ducked the big boys after Cupid suffered a thrashing in the G1 Arkansas Derby, collecting decent checks for lighter work in IND and MNR — but there’s no place to hide here, which means either that another thrashing is in the offing — or the Hall of Fame trainer thinks he’s developed into this kind.
- Wild About Deb (20-1) — Tiago Pereira/Ramon Preciado — After a seven-length beatdown by #1 Awesome Slew in the Smarty Jones, you’d rather see this lightly raced sort — now trained by Ramon Preciado — find an easier spot than this. He figures to be off the major speed early; not sure where he’ll be late.
- Gun Runner (6-1) — Florent Geroux/Steve Asmussen — Once again we have the question: how do you interpret the Travers? Was this runner crushed by 15 lengths? Or was he third, just 1 1/2 lengths behind the very good American Freedom for second? This multiple graded winner has done plenty right in his career, and his third in the Kentucky Derby was nothing to sneeze at either. But note that two who beat him that day, and three who bested him in the G1 Haskell, are here today. He’ll need a big one to turn those tables.
- My Man Sam (20-1) — Julien Leparoux/Chad Brown –Boy, this is a tough spot for a horse who finished eighth in the Travers and still is eligible for an N1X allowance. Looking for a reason to believe? Closing sort might get the pace he wants to close into, and when he does — say, in the G1 Blue Grass — he’s put forth some good efforts. Note that this is one of two here for trainer Brown, and those two have entirely different running styles. Two back runner-up effort was to ’15 Preakness runner-up Tale of Verve — for whatever that’s worth.
- Nyquist (5-2) — Mario Gutierrez/Doug O’Neill –Following the first Saturday in May, this Uncle Mo colt was an undefeated Derby star and had all the shine of racing’s next big thing. Today? Not so much. You could forgive the third-place finish in the Preakness, when the closers came and got him after a tough early pace duel, but it’s a little harder to put a happy spin on the Haskell, when he he lost the pace battle to American Freedom and also was passed by two late runners — both of whom are here. Note the interesting work tab since: four consecutive one-mile works in progressively faster times. He’ll need a bounce-back effort here, and it’s not clear the race shape supports that; plus, the expected short odds don’t entice.
- Sunny Ridge (12-1) — Joe Bravo/Jason Servis — Owner-breeder Dennis Drazin said after this NJ-bred’s monster effort to be third in the G1 Haskell that they’d next look for an easier spot. Oops. This guy ran on willingly for the show spot there and owns a G3 win and a pair of G1 placings. Jersey Joe Bravo — enjoying a late-career resurgence — gets the mount, and may look for a duplicate of the Holy Bull gelding’s Haskell run. It’s not hard to see this horse running well in this spot; winning may be a bit tougher though.
- Discreet Lover (30-1) — Jose Flores/Uriah St. Lewis –Locally-based Repent colt has been crushed by some of these in recent tries, and even getting a piece here would be a major surprise.
- Hit It Once More (20-1) — Kendrick Carmouche/Gary Sciacca — Speedy NY-bred took a while to figure it out — he didn’t break his maiden until his sixth race — but now has won four of five, two in stakes company. The water gets deeper here, though, as he steps out of NY-bred company for just the second time — in the first, in the Easy Goer at Belmont, he was a well-beaten fourth. Hard Spun colt figures to be forwardly placed early — he’s led at the first call in each of his last three starts — but that may be a tough place to win from, and breaking from the far outside offers its own challenges.