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.
By Dick Jerardi
The sign in front of the wire fence reads: “No houses here thanks to Pennsylvania Horse Breeders’ Fund.”
Richard Simoff put the sign in front of a recently-acquired 10 acres at his Twin Ponds Farm, which is south of Oxford, Pa., not far from the Maryland border.
“I have 35 acres; I’ve been here for 30 years,” Simoff said. “About five years ago, a real estate agent called me and said, ‘there’s 10 acres bordering your fence and they are going to put three houses there.’ I cashed in the IRA, and put the down payment on the land.”
So, he now has 45 acres and he saved some of Pennsylvania’s disappearing open space.
“This is preserving land,” Simoff said. “It’s doing a lot of good so I put the sign out.”
Simoff, like so many in the commonwealth’s horse business, is frustrated by the numerous false misconceptions that are making the rounds in the state legislature. He notes that the Pennsylvania horse racing industry is anything but rich Arab sheiks coming to Pennsylvania to take all of the money from the Pennsylvania Derby while everybody else is left behind. It is actually quite a huge business with money flowing through it that creates thousands of jobs.
“I have a half-mile track,” Simoff said. “I used to run horses off the farm… Now I mostly break horses, maybe 100 yearlings a year, 2-year-olds. And then I had some broodmares that I left turned out. I leave them out 24 hours a day and bring them in when they foal. If you have the land, it doesn’t cost as much. You just feed them twice a day.”
Simoff thinks he is going to get almost $100,000 in breeder’s awards this year.
“It’s not my bread and butter, but it helps,” he said.
He had one filly win in September at Parx when the purse was $70,000. She was PA-sired “so it was 40 percent to me, so my check from one race was like $23,000.”
He is not touting himself as a breeding genius. He knows better.
“A lot of this is just plain, dumb luck,” he said.
You just hope the horse you breed gets with the right people who know what they are doing and you can get some of that breeding bonus money on the back end. Simoff will not sell to just anybody. He really wants to sell to smart people who plan to race in Pennsylvania.
“There’s a big difference in trainers,” Simoff said.
Simoff bred the good three-year-old filly Smokinpaddylassie, who is trained at Parx by Eddie Coletti, Jr., and owned by newcomer Ed Bruzek.
He bought Smokinpaddylassie’s dam in foal at Keeneland for $6,200. He ended up selling another foal before Smokinpaddylassie won a stake at Laurel in March. And then the mare sadly died not long after.
“That’s what happens,” Simoff said, “It was a triple whammy. At least I got some breeder’s awards. I only get 20 percent because they were sired out-of-state.”
Regardless of the individual success or failures, it’s people like Richard Simoff who make the business “go” in Pennsylvania. He promotes open space with his farm. He helps young horses get ready for training. He breeds horses. He sells horses. And he proudly placed a sign on his fence that should serve as a reminder for everybody.