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It’s difficult to get much better than perfect. Racing eight times last year, Joseph Besecker’s Aztec Sense won all eight races, including five stakes, and at the annual horsemen’s awards banquet Wednesday evening, he was honored as the top thoroughbred in Pennsylvania for 2018.
Claimed by trainer Jorge Navarro from a start here at Parx in August of 2017 for $12,500, Aztec Sense, a six-year-old gelded son of Street Sense would become unbeatable. Opening his 2018 season at Gulfstream Park, he won a starter race by 9 ½ lengths. His closest margin of victory over the next six wins was 2 lengths. He won three stakes at Parx, the $100K Turning for Home (by 3 ½), the $100K PTHA President’s Cup (by 3 ½) and the $150K PA Derby Champion Stakes (by 4). He banked over $408,000 during the year, finishing his year with a win in the Claiming Crown Jewel in December at Gulfstream.
Other highlights from the evening included jockey Frankie Pennington, winning his fifth consecutive riding title and now sixth of his career. In doing so, he became the first jockey in the history of the racetrack to win five in a row. Trainer John Servis has won some of America’s biggest races, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Kentucky Oaks, the Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies, but despite all his national success, had never won a training title at his home track. That void was filled when he was honored as the track’s top trainer, winning 71 races at an amazing clip of 27.8%.
Three awards were given for Special Achievement: trainer Uriah St. Lewis and Discreet Lover for their amazing upset win in the G1 Jockey Club Gold Cup, Luis Carvajal and Imperial Hint for G1 wins in the Alfred Vanderbilt and Vosburgh Stakes, and John Servis and Jaywalk for winning the G1 Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies and an Eclipse Award as champion two-year-old filly.
Following is a list of all other divisional and individual award winners:
2YO Colt or Gelding – Cash is King & LC Racing’s Maximus Mischief (Butch Reid)
2YO Filly – Stony Brook Stables’ Tara’s Talent (Ed Coletti)
3YO Colt or Gelding – Swilcan Stable’s Navy Commander (Butch Reid)
3YO Filly – Uptowncharlybrown Stud’s Dixie Serenade (Ed Coletti)
Older Male – Joseph Besecker’s Aztec Sense (Jorge Navarro)
Older Female – Mario Mangini’s Zipper’s Hero (Ed Coletti)
Claiming Horse of the Year – Twinkling Star Stable’s Champagne Chuck (Patricia Farro)
Outstanding Claim of the Year – Smart Angle’s Wonderfully Tuned (Mike Pino)
Winningest Horse – Twinkling Star Stable’s Champagne Chuck (Patricia Farro)
Apprentice Jockey – Jann Hernandez
Leading Jockey – Frankie Pennington
Leading Owner – Jagger, Inc. & Top Notch Racing (Tie)
Leading Trainer – John Servis
“B” Division Trainer (top percentage with 50-150 starts and 15 or less stalls) – Howard Brown, Jr.
“B” Division Owner – Michael Cox
By Dick Jerardi
It was such a legendary year on the national scene for Parx-based horses that the accomplishments of all the other horses at Parx may have been slightly overlooked. That will change on Wednesday, March 27, during the annual Horsemen’s Awards Banquet at Celebrations.
Horses in various categories will be honored for what they did in 2018 at Parx Racing. Some honorees will be fairly obvious before they are announced. Some categories will be very close calls.
Nobody is going to be surprised if Maximus Mischief’s name is called as the Champion Two-Year-old Colt or Gelding. All Max did in 2018 was dominate two races at Parx before winning the Grade II Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct.
Trainer Eddie Coletti had a career year in 2018. He has the solid Tara’s Talent nominated in the Two-Year-old Filly category. Two of his very best are nominees for best Three-Year-Old Filly. Dixie Serenade and Smokinpaddylassie combined to win six races and nearly $400,000 last year.
Dixie Serenade gave the trainer his first graded stakes win when she took the Grade III Victory Ride Stakes at Belmont Park on July 8. She was also second in the
Jose Flores Memorial on Aug. 4 at Parx and third in the New Start Stakes at Penn National on June 2.
Bred in Pennsylvania like Dixie Serenade, Smokinpaddylassie won the first three starts of her career, including a win in the Beyond the Wire Stakes at Laurel Park. And she started off 2019 as if she is going to have another great year by winning a March 16 allowance at Parx.
Navy Commander won five of 11 starts and $126,303 in 2018 for Butch Reid who also trained Maximus Mischief. The horse, who won the July 7 Long Branch Stakes at Monmouth Park, is a contender for best Three-Year-Old Colt or Gelding.
The Four-Year-Old and Up Colt or Gelding category was especially strong in 2018 with nominees that won a combined 40 races and $1.5 million. Standing out in the category is Aztec Sense, who did not lose anywhere, at any racetrack, in 2018. He was a perfect 4-for-4 at Parx, including wins in three stakes, each in dominating fashion.
The Four-Year-Old and Up Filly or Mare category looks wide open with so many horses that had terrific years, including the Lou Linder-trained Viva Forever. She won eight times from 13 starts and earned nearly $200,000 in 2018. She won her final race of the year on New Year’s Eve.
The Claiming Horse of the Year category includes horses that have won 55 career races, 30 of them in 2018. The voters had a very difficult decision because so many of the nominees had such great years.
The same goes for Outstanding Claim of the Year. Champagne Chuck, who raced 19 times in 2018 with seven wins, three seconds and two thirds, was nominated in both claiming categories. He also captured the title for Winningest Horse at Parx in 2018 with those seven victories
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Purses Totaling $5.625 Million!
Parx Racing announced its stakes schedule this week for the 2019 season, a schedule that includes 28 stakes totaling $5.625 million in purse money. Topping the list are the tracks two $1 million Grade I races, the Pennsylvania Derby and Cotillion Stakes, run this year on Saturday, September 21st.
The Derby and Cotillion are the two centerpiece races for the track’s biggest day of the year, which has been expanded this year to include seven stakes in all, the $300K Gallant Bob, upgraded this past November and to be run for the first time as a Grade 2 race, the newly added $150K Parx Dirt Mile, the $150K Turf Amazon Stakes, the track’s top turf sprint for fillies & mares, and two PA-bred Stakes, the $100K Plum Pretty and the $100K Alphabet Soup.
The track had also expanded its Labor Day program, known as Smarty Jones Day. Headlined by the Grade 3 $300K Smarty Jones Stakes for three year-olds, the program will now feature six other stakes as well, the Grade 3 $300K Turf Monster, the track’s top race for turf sprinters, the first running of the $150K Cathryn Sophia Stakes for three-year-old fillies, and four MATCH series races, the $100K Bensalem, a six furlong sprint for males on the main track, the $100K Roamin Rachel, a six furlong main track sprint for fillies and mares, the $100K Neshaminy for males at seven and a half furlongs on the turf, and the $100K Sal DeBunda PTHA President’s Cup for fillies and mares at one mile and one-sixteenth on the turf.
The track has also moved Pennsylvania’s Day at the Races, its day to honor the breeding program in the Commonwealth. Traditionally run in September, it has been moved this year to Saturday, August 3rd and will again include five $100K stakes for the best state-breds in training.
The other major events are the track’s three other graded races, the G3 $200K Dr. James Penny Memorial (Tuesday, July 2), the Grade 3 $200K Parx Dash (Saturday, July 6) and the G3 $200K Greenwood Cup (Saturday, October 5).
The stakes season will begin Saturday, April 27th with two PA-bred stakes, the $100K Foxy JG and the $100K Lyman Handicap and conclude Saturday December 7th with the $100K Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes.
-By Dick Jerardi
Aztec Sense lost the first 12 races of his career, won a race and then lost the next 10 before winning his second race and then losing by 32 1/4 lengths at Saratoga on July 23, 2017. Exactly 15 days later at Parx, owner Joe Besecker decided he wanted to claim the horse for $12,500. It was the claim of a lifetime.
“(Trainer Jorge) Navarro and I were there together which is rare,” Besecker said. “I don’t get to go very often. I had told him I really liked this horse. He didn’t see it (on the past performances).”
Navarro agreed to look at Aztec Sense. He then agreed that the claim made some sense. Aztec Sense won the race and then went to his new home with Navarro.
“Three days later, he texted me and said we might have a monster here.” Besecker remembered. “I don’t know how he knew it, but he did.”
Turned out they did have a monster. Aztec Sense won big right off the claim and then was a very good fourth after a very difficult trip in one of the 2017 Claiming Crown races at Gulfstream Park. And that was just the prelude.
Aztec Sense ran eight times in 2018 and won them all, including four straight at Parx from June to September. He won the $100,000 Turning for Home Stakes, a starter allowance, the $100,000 Salvatore M. DeBunda PTHA President’s Cup and the $150,000 Pa. Derby Champions Stakes. None was close.
“There is no doubt his favorite track is Parx,” Besecker said.
Because of his perfect season, including those four Parx wins, Aztec Sense has been nominated for best 4-year-old and up colt or gelding at Parx in 2018. Winners in various categories will be announced at the annual Horsemen’s Awards Banquet to be held at Celebrations on Wednesday, March 27. Aztec Sense is probably the favorite in his category and also figures to be a strong contender for Parx Horse of the Year.
“It would be really cool (to win),” Besecker said. “We took him there. It’s his favorite track by far. He’s done well other places, but (Parx is) his home. I’m confident with him running on that track against damn near anybody. At Parx, he acts like King Kong and he performs like King Kong.”
Aztec Sense finished off his 2018 season with a win in the $196,000 Claiming Crown Jewel at Gulfstream Park. In his first 2019 start he didn’t miss a beat, capturing the $150,000 Fred W. Hooper Stakes on January 26. Unfortunately, he pulled up badly after the race. Turned out he had a small chip at the bottom of the sesamoid.
“It was removed,” Besecker said. “The surgery was excellent. The prognosis is pretty good, but you never really know.”
The plan had been for Aztec Sense to go to Dubai to run in the Mile race at the end of March. Plans are on hold for now.
Regardless of what happens next, it has been some ride for Besecker’s stable. Aztec Sense has won over $500,000 since the claim. Besecker looks like he is going to be leading owner at the Gulfstream championship meet. He has 19 wins, compared to 10 for the next closest owner. He is also leading the standings at Laurel Park. He has 36 wins in 2019, the most in the country.
You make enough moves in the game, you may hit a home run every once in a while. Aztec Sense was a grand slam; one the owner never imagined hitting.
“Absolutely not,” Besecker said when asked if he expected anything like what happened. “We had some conditions that we could go through.”
They blew through a first-level allowance condition and then just bypassed most of the rest of them. Now, they are just hoping they can get the six-year-old gelding back to the races.
“The likelihood of him continuing on and being something like he was is about 65 percent,” Besecker said.