By Dick Jerardi

It was the perfect Bucks County afternoon as the snow and the temperatures came down. Sit in front of the laptop and watch the races from Gulfstream Park, awaiting the showdown between the almost certain 2021 Horse of the Year and a prospective 2022 Horse of the Year. As an appetizer, we got a Grade II stake featuring two Pennsylvania bred fillies with immense talent. And before we got there, I got a one-word text from Dani Gibson – “WITTY!!!!!!’’

As in the Pa. bred gelding Witty who was so impressive winning the Dec. 7 $200,000 Pa. Nursery at Parx. Bred and owned by Lizzie Merryman and trained by her son McLane Hendricks, Witty won the Nursery by 5 ½ lengths under regular rider Carol Cedeno. Sitting midpack, the horse just exploded on the turn and powered away in the stretch.

Witty was 6-1 in Saturday’s Spectacular Bid at Laurel Park.  I was not watching the race because I was engrossed in the Gulfstream card, But when I watched the replay that night, it was just as Dani wrote: “Dusted them.’’

Just like in the race at Parx, Witty was a few lengths off the pace in midpack early in the 7-furlong race. And almost like a replay, Witty, off at 6-1, exploded on the turn, inhaled heavy favorite HP Moon, and ran away from the field in the stretch, winning by 7 3/4 lengths, earning an 81 Beyer speed figure.

The connections will have plenty of choices for Witty in 2022, but hard to imagine he would not be a heavy favorite in any of those 3-year-old Pa. bred races.

Just a half-hour after Witty proved a great advertisement for the Pa. bred program in Maryland, a 4-year-old filly and 7-year-old mare proved even a greater advertisement in the Grade II Inside Information at Gulfstream. 

Just One Time, the filly, was 4-for-5 at Presque Isle Downs and Penn National last spring, summer, and fall. Her last two races at Penn were so fast that she was purchased privately and turned over to trainer Brad Cox.

Making her first start for Cox and first, since Oct. 22, Just One Time was sent off as the 3-2 favorite in the $200,000 7-furlong race. The filly, under Joel Rosario, reared up in the gate not long before the start. Then, she did not break particularly well so instead of being near the lead as she had been in all of her starts, she was seventh early. No matter. She started rolling by horses on the turn and kept on rolling past all of them, winning by three-quarters of a length.

The mare Jakarta, seen most recently winning the Dec 28 $100,000 Mrs. Claus Stakes at Parx, was in a pace duel up top. She finally got rid of the other speed horse only to be confronted by the closers including Just One Time. Jakarta held gamely to be third, running her record on fast dirt surfaces to 6 wins, 1 second and a third in 10 starts.

It was some showing by the two Pa. breds in open stakes against such accomplished mares as Four Graces and Pacific Gale.

It was a several-hour wait until Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Knicks Go and BC Dirt Mile winner Life Is Good entered the starting gate for the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational. There were nine horses in the gate, but only two mattered. Very late money made Life Is Good a slight 4-5 favorite while Knicks Go, who had been the favorite until the end, went off at 9-10.

The race essentially was over 100 yards in when Life Is Good easily beat Knicks Go to the lead. When you give a talent like Life Is Good that kind of an edge, he will win just about every time. He won this time by 3 1/4 lengths, but it never felt that close.

Knicks Go was 10-for-13 in his career when he had a clear lead, 0-for-10 when he did not. Making his final start before going to stud, Knicks Go kept trying all the way to the finish line, holding off Stilleto Boy the length of the stretch to save second by a length. It was a very impressive effort for a horse that had not shown much fight earlier in his career when taken out of his comfort zone.

We will never know this, but, if he hadn’t been hurt in the runup to the 2021 Triple Crown, I will always believe Life Is Good was going to win the Kentucky Derby and perhaps even the Triple Crown. The now 4-year-old is an uncharacteristically tentative Mike Smith ride from being unbeaten in seven starts. Life Is Good beat 2021 Derby winner Medina Spirit twice last winter, once close, once in a blowout.

So, as Knicks Go leaves the stage, Life Is Good takes center stage. After the race, his trainer Todd Pletcher said Life Is Good is the best horse he’s ever had. That is some statement from a man who has trained some of the very best.

Life Is Good, as announcer Larry Collmus said at the end of his Del Mar debut, is “very, very, very good.’’ So now we await the next titanic confrontation. If we are lucky, sometime during 2022, we will see Life Is Good in the same starting gate as the incredible Flightline. Can’t wait.


By Dick Jerardi

When I went over each of the horses listed for all the categories on the 2021 Parx Horse of the Year ballot, it was hard not to relive all the wonderful performances we saw at the track last year.

The winners in all the categories and Horse of the Year will be announced at the annual Awards Banquet on Saturday, Feb. 19 (5:30-10 p.m.) at Celebrations. Many of the winners are fairly obvious, others less so. Be interesting to find out what the 15 voters decided.

I voted for Dance Code as best 2-year-old male. The Pennsylvania bred, owned by Richie’s World Stables LLC and trained by Juan Vazquez, finished off a terrific season by wiring the $100,000 Parx Juvenile on Dec. 29. Earlier, the son of Honor Code, had finished third in the Grade III Saratoga Special in July just after breaking his maiden at Parx in June. The colt also won a Parx allowance in November and had earnings of $157,260.

Impressive Pennsylvania Nursery winner Witty was also likely to get some support from voters as he was dazzling in a victory that day.

I went for Pa. Bred Dance Code as the top 2-year-old filly. Before unsuccessfully trying the boys in the Nursery, she had won three straight by a combined 26 3/4 lengths. One of those wins was in the Shamrock Rose Stakes at Penn National. In her first two races, Dance Code, owned by Cash Is King LLC and LC Racing LLC and trained by Butch Reid, finished second. She earned $210,460.

Pennsylvania Bred Beren, also trained by Reid and owned by St. Omer’s Farm and Christopher Feifarek, had an incredible 2021 and was an easy selection for me as top 3-year-old male. Both Dance Code and Beren are by Weigelia, one of Reid’s favorite sires. All Beren did in 2021 was go 7-for-12 with 2 seconds, win five stakes and earn $469,790. The colt won two stakes at Belmont Park, two at Parx, one at Penn National and then did everything but win the $250,000 Steel Valley Sprint at Mahoning Valley before settling for second. It was a brilliant campaign that began in early January and ended in late November.

Hollywood Jet (five wins) and I Am Redeemed (four wins, including the $100,000 Storm Cat) had really good years. Marvelous Mike won three times and had the misfortune of running into Beren three other times.

Leader of the Band, another Pa. Bred by Bandox, was an obvious choice as top 3-year-old filly. She never ran a bad race in seven starts. She won the Grade III Monmouth Oaks, finished third in the Grade III Delaware Oaks and second in the $150,000 Cathryn Sophia at Parx. Racing for SMD Ltd and trainer John Servis, she tried the Grade I Cotillion against some of the best fillies in the country, but never had much of a chance with her come-from-behind style when the pace was so slow. Leader of the Band earned $284,700 last year.

There were some really good and consistent older male horses that ran at Parx in 2021 – Admiral Abe (five wins, $266,872), Magic Michael (seven wins, $307,560), Sevier (11 wins, $257,150), Sheer Flattery (seven wins, $166,060) and Why Why Paul Why (five wins, $155,250) among others. I found this one of the tougher categories, but ended up voting for Magic Michael. His win the $200,000 Greenwood Cup on Pennsylvania Derby Day and the fact that he raced in every month but October put him over the top for me. And this horse, with nine wins and a second ar Parx, loves his home track. Magic Michael is owned by Morris E. Kernan, Jr., Yo Berbs Racing and Jagger Inc. The now 5-year-old is trained by Jamie Ness.

In another year, horses like Precious (won a stake and placed in two others) and Sweet Willemina (PTHA President’s Cup and Claiming Crown winner) would have received serious consideration as top older female, but not in a year with the amazing Chub Wagon. All the Pa. bred filly did in 2021 was go 8-for-9 with one second. She won three stakes at Parx, two at Pimlico and one at Delaware Park. She also won an allowance at Aqueduct. She is barely a length from behind unbeaten in 11 career starts, that lone loss coming on a sloppy track that she may not have liked.

Trained by Lupe Preciado and owned by Danny Lopez and George Chestnut, Chub Wagon was simply amazing from March to September and I can’t wait to see her back on the track in 2022.

So many great claims at Parx in 2021, but hard not to vote for Thorny Tale, claimed by Ness and Jagger for $12,500 in January. She won the day she was claimed and five times thereafter, the very definition of a great claim.

So many good candidates for Claimer of the Year, including 11-win Sevier, seven-win Flattery and six-win Shero. I went with Sweet Willemina. Scott Lake claimed her for $32,000 in June at Churchill Downs. She came to Parx and had an incredible run from late June until late December for Rich Ciavardone and Lake’s Home Team Stables, winning seven times, including a stake at Parx and the Glass Slipper at Gulfstream. Lake has made some amazing claims in his career, but Sweet Willemina must be one of the very best.

One could certainly make a case for Beren or Leader of the Band as the 2021 Parx Horse of the Year, but I can’t get past Chub Wagon. During a year when he won his 2,000th race, Parx Hall of Famer Lupe Preciado was entrusted with the care of his horse of a lifetime. She was managed perfectly and nearly had a perfect season. She is my 2021 Parx Horse of the Year.


By Dick Jerardi

Jeff Matty fell in love with horse racing at Philadelphia Park. His father, who always had a few horses, would take him to the track on Saturday mornings to watch the horses train. Then, they would go out to breakfast, discuss race strategy and stable management strategy.

When the Saint Joseph’s University graduate, after a decade working in various aspects of the sport, was offered an opportunity to interview for the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemens’ Association (PTHA) executive director position upon Mike Ballezzi’s retirement, he was honored to be considered. When he was offered the position, he was thrilled to say yes.

Now that he has been on the job for two weeks, he has some fascinating insights into what he has experienced so far.

“Our staff has been second to none,’’ Matty said. “They’re getting me up to speed on everything. (PTHA president) Sal (DeBunda) is just a phone call away. He’s been great. Almost every single one of the board members has called, if not every other day, every third day just to check-in and see how I’m doing. You can tell how passionate they are about this place, how supportive they are of me, and how they want this to be a success. It’s really been great.’’

Matty became a racing official at Parx right after college graduation. He credits longtime Parx official Albert Ott as showing him the ropes. From Parx, he went to Monmouth Park also as a racing official. He learned how the racing office works and saw what he calls “behind the ropes.’’

The day after the 2014 Pennsylvania Derby (aka the California Chrome Pa. Derby),  Joe Besecker also a St. Joe’s grad hired Matty as his stable manager.

“Joe taught me everything, how to operate at Parx, how to operate at Penn National,’’ Matty said “We’ve had horses all the way from Philadelphia to California to Florida to Saratoga.’’

Besecker’s stable won its 1000th race this summer, Matty was there for 750 of them.

“It was a great run and I enjoyed every single day and the most important part, the part I liked the best was the interactions with the horsemen,’’ Matty said. “This position is a great transition to that. Dealing with all of Joe’s trainers, we’ve had as much as 15 to 20 on the payroll at one time. So I understand the challenges. I understand what they go through on a daily basis and for me to now accept this position, I think it gave me the experience necessary to sort of go to bat for them on a daily basis knowing what they go through.’’

From his first interview with DeBunda until he was offered the job, Matty also worked on Besecker’s second dispersal sale in two years. It was a whirlwind, but now the new executive director is settled in at his new job.

“I knew there were many different facets to the office,’’ Matty said. “I didn’t know just how many…The part I didn’t expect was just how passionate and involved that our staff is. They each have their specificial roles and duties. This is more than a job to them and it’s going to be more than a job to me.’’

 The PTHA is unique in the sport with its pension plan, medical insurance and Turning For Home program, the industry model for how to retire race horses.

“We have people dedicated to those areas,’’ Matty said.

In his first two weeks, Matty has had several horsemen stop by his office to tell him “our healthcare plan not only has helped them, it saved their life.’’

Parx, Matty said, is where “a lot of our horsemen have dedicated their lives and their careers to being here. If we can provide them healthcare, the pension plan, we need to provide it because without them, we are nothing.’’

Every race track has racing, Matty said, but few have what Parx has in the medical coverage, pensions and Turning For Home.

TFH Program administrator Danielle Montgomery and her sidekick Dani Gibson are two of those passionate PTHA staff members Matty spoke of with gratitude.

“I think we’re the gold standard in retirement programs so we’re going to take what Mr. Ballezzi formed and continue it,’’ Matty said. “I think that’s what we can be most proud of, our aftercare program.’’  There is no question about that, just as there is no question Jeff Matty is the right man at the right time in the right place as the PTHA begins a new chapter.


By Dick Jerardi

It was the early evening of Nov. 6, 1998. A few of us were walking the entirety of the Churchill Downs Turf Course, led by Michael Dicksinson and his constant companion/assistant Joan Wakefield. They were looking for the best and worst parts of the course, leaving absolutely nothing to chance.

And why would they? Two years before, they were in Toronto to see Da Hoss win the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Woodbine. This was the eve of the 1998 BC Mile. And Da Hoss, improbably, was back for another go.

Dickinson was Da Hoss’s trainer of record, but this was a partnership in every sense of the word. Along with exercise rider John Ferriday and groom Miguel Piedra, Dickinson and Wakfield were just hours away from seeing if their miracle horse, now 6–years-old, could come all the way back to his very best and beat the best grass milers in the world.

Da Hoss did not race from Oct. 26, 1996 until Oct. 11, 1998 when he won an allowance race at Colonial Downs by three-quarters of a length. If you just saw the past performances, you would figure no way the horse was anywhere near his best. I remember watching it in the press box at what was then known as Philadelphia Park. And smiling in the final yards. Jockey Carlos Marquez was barely asking Da Hoss to run. This was a prep race in every sense of the word.

After stopping and starting and stopping and starting with Da Hoss because of an arthritic condition, Dickinson and his team had timed it all up perfectly. Da Hoss, Dickinson told anybody who would listen, was going to run the very best race of his life. And he was going to win.

I believed. And bet accordingly.

When I heard that Da Hoss, who lived out his life at the Kentucky Horse Park, had died on Jan. 2 a day after his 30th birthday, all the memories from that week, that night on the grass course and the day of that Breeders’ Cup came flooding  back.

“He had a good ride,’’ Dickinson said. “They looked after him well at the Horse Park. When Joan used to take Miguel and John Boy (Ferriday) to see him, it was very highly charged. They’d all cry.’’

Which was not unlike the aftermath of race 7 at Churchill on Nov. 7, 1998. Da Hoss, ridden by a young John Velazquez and sent off at 11-1, was always in good position. When Da Hoss started to pass horses on the far turn and move toward the lead, it all became very real.

At the eighth pole, Da Hoss was in front. At the sixteenth pole, he was second, passed by Hawksley Hill. Once horses take the lead in the stretch and are passed, they don’t come back to win much. So what were the odds on a horse that had raced just once in two years coming again to win the BC Mile?

Incalculable, unless, of course, the horse was Da Hoss. The horse simply wanted to win so he came back on Hawksley Hill and put his nose and then his head in front just as he hit the wire, the miracle comeback completed.

“He was our horse of a lifetime,’’ Dickinson said.

That 1998 Breeders’ Cup was Da Hoss’s final race. It was a perfect ending for a horse that ran at Turf Paradise, Aqueduct, Garden State Park, Sportsman’s Park, Hollywood Park, Del Mar, the Meadowlands, Belmont Park, Saratoga, Penn National, Woodbine, Colonial Downs and, finally, fittingly, at Churchill Downs. There were 20 starts, 12 wins, 5 seconds and nearly $2 million in earnings over 4 years of racing. On grass, Da Hoss started 11 times, with 8 wins, 1 seconds and two thirds.

Dickinson trained at Fair Hill (Md.) Training Center when he first came to the United States from his native England. By 1998, his operation had moved to Tapeta Farm in North East, Md. and Da Hoss was one of the first horses to train on the revolutionary Tapeta surface. There was never a better advertisement for a surface that is now used the world over and was recently installed at Gulfstream Park.

It took the entire team and the surroundings to get Da Hoss ready again. But, in the end, it was about the horse,

“The single most important thing in winning a race is to have the  best horse,’’ Dickinson said that unforgettable November day.

And Da Hoss was simply the best horse they ever had.


By Dick Jerardi

When the decision was made to go exclusively with a Monday,  Tuesday, Wednesday schedule at Parx in 2021, the hope was that Wednesdays, without so much competition, would be much more successful than Saturdays with all the competition.

Hope became reality. The average daily simulcast handle on Parx races in 2021 was $2,644 million. In 2020, it was $2,043 million. In 2019, it was $1,546 million.

“So we are up this year over 2019 by 71 percent,’’ said Parx Chief Operating Officer Joe Wilson. “Without a doubt, the Wednesday far out does the Saturday.’’

In 2019, the track ran a mix of three-day weeks and four-day weeks.

“Probably the biggest factor and I think it’s equal, Wednesday instead of Saturday, also running three days as opposed to four days, that’s just as big,’’ Wilson said. “The four days, we can’t handle it anymore. We just can’t do it.’’

The track’s fiscal year ended Dec. 26 so the numbers Wilson cited don’t even count Dec. 27, 28 and 29 when the track handled nearly $14 million.

“The other thing with this three-day-a-week schedule, I run more races per day,’’ Wilson said. “So back in 2019, we were running four days a week, there were some days I could only card eight races.’’

The way the game is delivered to players has changed dramatically in the last decade. Back in 2005, Parx had six OTB’s and a national phonebet system. So the on-track handle was the thing.

Then, casinos came to Pennsylvania and account wagering systems became the thing for horse players. Parx is down to one OTB (South Philly). Wilson said the new model will be on display soon at a new Chickie’s and Pete’s in Malvern where Parx will have a small space for horse and sports betting.

“Back then, you might have had 10 percent of your handle was

done through account wagering,’’ Wilson said. “Now, it’s probably north of 75 percent done through account wagering.’’

The on-track handle model is now a relic from another era as more than 90 percent of the national handle is bet somewhere other than at race tracks. So the play in the 2020s is to make your betting product as appealing as possible to generate handle on your live races wherever those bets come from.

“Everybody is trying to do this marketing thing, that marketing thing, got to bring people to the track, you’ve got to generate on-track handle,’’ Wilson said. “It ain’t going to happen. Unfortunately, that’s over. So you really want to key on some big days.’’

To that end, the track is going to schedule six Saturdays instead of Wednesdays in 2020. Parx will run live on the Saturdays of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, Father’s Day Weekend, July 4th Weekend and Pennsylvania Derby.

Big days are their own entities and attractions as 2021 Pa. Derby Day clearly demonstrated. The best racing card in the history of the race track generated a record $13.2 million handle.

“We’ll try to make each one of those days as big of an on-track event as we can to get people out,’’ Wilson said. “There are people that miss that racing on Saturday, that racing on a weekend.’’

Longtime Parx fans really enjoy the picnic area so that will get more play in 2022 with the six Saturdays.

With those final three days of 2021 to get the track flying out of the 2022 fiscal starting gate, it will be interesting to follow the handle numbers this year.

The Philly Big 5 with the Jackpot carryover began May 10, 2021. It was hit with a single ticket twice  ($326,000 on June 14 and $245,000 on Nov. 2). Three times, including on Dec. 29, the entire pool was paid out as part of mandatory distribution.

The carryover heading into last Wednesday was nearly $400,000. Wilson expected some large wagering, but admitted he was not prepared for what happened.

“Generally, things don’t surprise me anymore,’’ Wilson said. “That surprised me. There was $400,000 in that jackpot and they bet $2 million to get that out. If I had to guess, I would have said it would be $1 million, maybe a little bit more than a million. But not $2 million.’’

When he was asked how many times Parx had a $2 million pool ($1.997 million to be exact) for one bet, Wilson knew that instantly: it was a first.

“I don’t even have to look that up,’’ Wilson said.

Nor does he have to look up the quality of the daily product at Parx. It’s just better and that attracts bettors.

Now, with 10 races per day, it’s 30 races per week. With four-day weeks and sometimes eight races daily, that was 32 races per week.

“Three tens works out a whole lot better than four eights,’’ Wilson said.

The proof is right there in the numbers.