PA DERBY DAY CARD BEST IN PARX HISTORY

By Dick Jerardi

The 2021 Pennsylvania Derby Day 13-race card was clearly the best in track history. This Saturday’s 13-race card, with 10 stakes, five graded and a record $4.1 million in purses, is even better. Last year, players at the track and around the country responded with a record betting handle of $13,246,657.

We shall see how they respond Saturday to challenging  handicapping puzzles from $100,000 maiden races to two $200,000 stakes for 2-year-olds, four stakes for Pa. Breds, the Parx Dirt Mile and those five graded stakes, beginning with the Greenwood Cup for marathoners through the Turf Monster for grass sprinters, the Gallant Bob for 3-year-old sprinters and culminating with the $1 million Grade I Cotillion and the $1 million Grade I Pa. Derby.

This is the deepest Pa. Derby field ever assembled, with four Grade I winners and eight graded stakes winners overall. The race has the winners of the Santa Anita Derby (Taiba), Arkansas Derby (Cyberknife), Florida Derby (White Abarrio) and Blue Grass Stakes (Zandon), the four most significant Kentucky Derby prep races. Additionally, the race has the winners of the Fountain of Youth (Simplification), West Virginia Derby (Skippylongstocking), Peter Pan (We The People) and Ohio Derby (Tawny Port).

A case could be made that other than the Derby itself, this is the strongest overall field of 3-year-olds in 2021. Taiba is the likely favorite as trainer Bob Baffert goes for a record fourth Pa. Derby win. Cyberknife is the only two-time Grade I winner among 3-year-olds this year with his win in Arkansas and the Haskell over Taiba. As the Haskell winner, Cyberknife’s owner Al Gold and trainer Brad Cox each are entitled to $50,000 participation bonuses given to the connections of any horse that won the Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, Haskell, or Travers.

The Pa. Derby has early speed in We The People and Skippylongstocking. It has mid-back stalkers in Taiba, Cyberknife, and Simplification. It has a deep closer in Zandon. Tawny’s Port’s good races are competitive. White Abarrio would need to recapture his early spring form to win. Add all the money up for the eight graded stakes winners and the total comes to $7,328,070, a testament to the overall quality of the field.

There is four Hall of Fame trainers with horses in the Pa. Derby or Cotillion (Baffert, Wayne Lukas, Steve Asmussen, and Todd Pletcher). And three more (Doug O’Neill, Chad Brown, Cox) are well on their way to hearing their names called one day.

The big-name jockeys that will ride the card include Irad Ortiz, Jr., Mike Smith, Joel Rosario, Luis Saez, Flavien Prat, John Velazquez, and Florent Geroux. Parx Hall of Famer Frankie Pennington will be prominent during the card, including a ride on Joe Besecker and West Point Thoroughbreds’ B Dawk in the Pa. Derby.

Speaking of B Dawk, his namesake Eagles Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins will be giving the rider’s up call for the Pa. Derby. Saint Joseph’s legend Jameer Nelson, the 2004 national college basketball player of the year and 2009 NBA All-Star, will be doing the rider’s up honors for the Cotillion.

Kentucky Oaks winner Secret Oath, trained by Lukas, is the likely Cotillion favorite. The filly never runs a bad race and that includes solid efforts against males in the Arkansas Derby and Preakness. Lukas has won just about major stakes in America. The Cotillion is a rare exception, but this one will not be easy.

Pletcher has three live fillies in the race, including Green Up (in line for a $50,000 bonus if she wins after taking the Cathryn Sophia), Goddess of Fire (four times graded stakes placed) and Monmouth Oaks winner Shahama. Baffert brings Las Virgenes winner Adare Manor from California. Mother Goose winner Gerrymander (Brown) and Charles Town Oaks winner Society (Asmussen) are also contenders.

The Gallant Bob, Turf Monster, and Greenwood Cup are all wide-open stakes with large fields, perfect betting races in the middle of a card filled with races that will test players’ preparation, knowledge, and nerve.

The Gallant Bob will be shown a few minutes after the telecast (4:30-6:30) on PHL-17 begins. The Cotillion (5:20) and Pa. Derby (6:10) will also be shown live, with a few of the other stakes on tape.

The racing begins at 12:05 and ends at 6:40. Next year will mark the 50th year Keystone/Philadelphia Park/Parx has been in operation. Pennsylvania Derby Day 2023 will have a very difficult act to follow. 

FLIGHTLINE IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

By Dick Jerardi

“Champions,’’ a Daily Racing Form publication, subtitled “The Lives, Times and Past Performances of America’s Greatest Thoroughbreds,’’ is a wonderful resource that I have used countless times through the years. It chronicles America’s greatest horses from the 1890s to the 2000s.

When Flightline won the Pacific Classic by 19 1/4 lengths, it was time to take another look through “Champions.’’ Comparisons with some of the legends like Man o’ War, Citation, Native Dancer Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Spectacular Bid are really impossible. It was such a different sport from the 1920s into the early 1980s.

But this is certain: no horse at the top level of the sport has ever started a career with five performances like Flightline’s. Five wins by a combined 62 3/4 lengths, the last three Grade I stakes.

When Justify was gearing up for the 2018 Kentucky Derby, I did a study for DRF, looking back over 25 years to see how many horses had begun careers with at least three consecutive triple digit Beyer figures. The answer was 18, including Justify and Lost in the Fog (10 straight). A few of the horses were well known, others obscure.

None of those 18 had a five race series of Beyers that was anything close to Fightline’s 105, 114, 118, 112 and 126. That 126 in the Pacific Classic is tied for the second highest Beyer in the 30 years they have been published in DRF. Only Ghostzapper’s 128 Beyer in the 2004 Iselin is higher.

Obviously, there were no Beyer figures in the 20s, 40s and 50s. And none were published until the 90s. So there is no way to know how Flightline’s numbers would compare to the legends cited above.

Flightline did not begin his career until April 24, 2021 as his fellow 3-year-olds were gearing up for the Kentucky Derby. Then, the colt did not run again until Sept. 5. He was off again until the Malibu Stakes on Dec. 26. Then, it was the Met Mile on June 11 and the Pacific Classic on Sept. 3.

The five races in little more than 16 months is strange even when compared to today’s cautious handling of America’s best horses. Flightline has had minor injuries which were part of the issue. But five races does not constitute any kind of campaign.

Still, Flightline did beat the Dubai World Cup winner by 19 lengths in the Pacific Classic. The Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner was nowhere in the Malibu.

It is Flightline’s margins that are so astounding. Very few American races are decided by 10 lengths or more. All but one of Flightline’s have been decided by 11 lengths or more.

Flightline will race next in the Nov. 5 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland. As a son of superstar stallion Tapit, Flightline’s worth as a stallion is almost incalculable. $80 million? $100 million? More?

The colt’s ownership group is talking about racing him in 2023 as a 5-year-old. Let’s hope it happens and Flightline runs in races like the Pegasus World Cup, the Saudi Cup, the Dubai World Cup, the BC Classic again. But that breeding money is going to be very difficult to ignore. If Flightline wins the 2022 Classic like he has won all his other races and runs in those big races next year and keeps winning by huge margins, historical comparisons can, at least, be attempted.

In this era, what Flightline has done so far is unprecedented because of how fast he runs and the margins of victory.

“Champions’’ reveals what some of the legends did.

Man o’ War ran 10 times as a 2-year-old and 11 times as a 3-year-old. He won 20 and was second once after a terrible start.

Citation ran nine times as a 2-year-old with eight wins and a second. Then, he ran 20 times as a 3-year-old, with 19 wins, a second and a Triple Crown.

Native Dancer won all nine of his races as a 2-year-old. As a 3-year-old, the colt ran 10 times with nine wins and a second (an excruciating loss in the Kentucky Derby). He was 3-for-3 as a 4-year-old.

Secretariat set track records in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Next year will mark a half century since the greatest Triple Crown of all. Each of the stakes records still stands. So do the track records at Churchill Downs and Belmont which remains a world record.

Seattle Slew was a perfect 9-for-9 when he won his Triple Crown.

Spectacular Bid was 24-for-24 at distances from 7 furlongs to a mile and a quarter.

None of that would ever happen today. The stallion money is just too enticing and top horses just don’t race that much.

Whatever happens in the Classic or in 2023 with Flightline, let’s just enjoy what we have now _ one of the fastest horses in the history of American racing. 

MIKE BALLEZZI’S LASTING IMPACT AT PARX

By Dick Jerardi

It’s been nearly a half-century so trainer Phil Aristone, who was a sophomore in high school, can be forgiven if his memory isn’t clear about whether Mike Ballezzi got his trainer’s license before he got his law license after graduation from Widener Law School in 1976.

The bottom line is the same. Ballezzi’s background in the law and horse racing were the perfect marriage during his 25-year run as the executive director of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (PTHA).

“His passion was the horses,’’ said Aristone who called Ballezzi “like my big brother.’’

Ballezzi, 76, passed away Aug. 31, eight months after he retired following his incredibly impactful run with the PTHA.

“I would sit in the office with him and he would get an idea,’’ Aristone said. “It was unbelievable the innate ability he would have to get it from start to finish.’’

When the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development and Gaming Act (aka Act 71, the slots bill) was being debated, Ballezzi was right there pushing alongside PTHA president Sal DeBunda. When it became law in 2004, Ballezzi was instrumental in implementing all those ideas Aristone spoke about.

There was the horsemens’ medical insurance and pension plan and the Granny Fund (scholarships for stable employees). Before that, there was the Horsemens’ Purchasing Association (great deals on feed, bedding, equipment). And there was the purse account negotiations with Parx management, support for the weekly television show Let’s Go Racing, creation of the Parx Hall of Fame and, in 2008, Ballezzi’s idea of a Parx-based horse retirement program came to life as “Turning For Home.’’

Fourteen years later, TFH has retired and rehomed more than 3.200 horses. It is recognized nationally as the gold standard for race track horse retirement programs.

Dani Gibson, the PTHA’s publicity director and the host of Let’s Go Racing, calls Ballezzi “the best boss I ever had.’’

“You felt supported, he had your back,’’ she said. “He believed in you so much you really felt like anything you dreamed could come true and he would lead you there.’’

Danielle Montgomery is the second TFH program administrator succeeding Barbara Luna. Aristone suggested to Danielle that she apply for the job.

 She didn’t really know Ballezzi. When she went for her interview, she found him “intimidating, but impressive.’’

Montgomery had a horse background and an office background. She was the perfect fit and Ballezzi knew it.

 “He taught me everything I need to know about this business,’’ Montgomery said. “With Turning For Home, it was always `do the right thing.’ He mentored me and taught me so much.’’

 It was, she said, “always do the right thing for the horsemen and the horses.’’

DeBunda and Ballezzi were a team at Parx. When asked for Ballezzi’s best characteristic, DeBunda did not hesitate.

 “He was a bulldog,’’ DeBunda said. “We would come up with things together and he was aggressive and assertive about the things we were trying to do.’’

When slots became a possibility, DeBunda and Ballezzi were relentless. They kept working until the law was passed. Then, they really got to work on all those programs for the horsemen.

“We felt we were a village and most of the other states did not have the permanency of our relationship,’’ DeBunda said. “They were more transient. We felt like we had to treat our people more like they were year round residents.’’

So they did exactly that with the medical and the pension and all the rest.

It was not just the ideas that became action. There was also Ballezzi’s behind the scenes work outside the spotlight.

“Guys would come in there for help completely unrelated to the horse business and it was like having a sitdown with a lawyer,’’ Aristone said. “He helped so many people in so many ways. If he thought somebody was in the right, he would go to the mat for them.’’

Ballezzi’s wife Artie was Roland Aristone’s personal

secretary for his construction company in South Jersey.

“Mike credits my dad with putting him through law school,’’ Phil Aristone remembered. “He would give Artie a bonus and that would take care of some of his college. Mike said he made up a job for him. He would have him take pictures of high schools in various stages of construction.’’

That was when the Aristones had 105 horses on their 350-acre farm in Indian Mills (Shamong Township), N.J.

  “He was part of our family,’’ Aristone said.

And the record shows that Mike Ballezzi took out his owner’s license in 1973, the same year he got his undergraduate degree from Rutgers. Racing under the stable name Balmora Farm, Ballezzi still owned horses in 2022 with Aristone as his trainer and when they spoke three days before Ballezzi died, he told his trainer that Snappy Ride “is going to break her maiden next time out.’’

The M.P. Ballezzi Appreciation Mile was first run at Parx in 2019.  When the race is run again on Oct. 18, it will have special meaning for everybody who worked with Mike at the PTHA and knew him inside and outside of horse racing. It won’t be the same without Mike in the winner’s circle to present the trophy, but his memory will be there forever through the race named in his honor and the work he did for the horsemen all those years.