By Dick Jerardi

Trainer Ernesto Padilla-Preciado, aka Chito, understood when owner JKX Racing said Malibu Star was going to be sold at the Keeneland April Horse of Racing Age sale. The 6-year-old had been claimed for $25,000 in July 2022 and won more than $100,000 in six races with Chito. The last three races, all at Parx, were wins by a combined 21 lengths. 

“He did the right thing,” Chito said. “He took a nice profit.”

So he said goodbye to the best horse in his barn. Chito was at his barn at feeding time when Malibu Star hit the auction stage at Keeneland and watched as the bidding went all the way to $140,000. JKX Racing had made $240,000 after that $25,000 claim, but Chito still did not have Malibu Star.

“I was kind of upset when they first took him to the sale because I really didn’t want to lose that horse,” Chito said. 

What he did not know is who made the winning bid.

“I got a call like three times, but I did not know the number so I did not answer,” Chito said.

Eventually, he listened to a voicemail and called Jaime Guerrero who told him, without telling him the horse’s name, that he was going to be sending him a horse the next day.

Guerrero, brother of Parx trainers Carlos and Lupe Guerrero, liked Malibu Star every bit as much as Chito. So he drove to Kentucky with his girlfriend, started bidding, and did not stop until the hammer fell and he owned Malibu Star.

“I couldn’t believe he was actually going to be put up for sale,” Guerrero said. “I would never sell anything like that, but I was curious.”

The more he thought about it, the more he said: “I can’t let an opportunity like this go by. It’s so hard to get a good horse. You sometimes spend millions for a horse that you don’t even know if he’s going to run.”

So he made the drive to Lexington, Kentucky.

“And before you know it, I end up with the horse,” Guerrero said.

And made that call to Chito, who asked for the horse’s name.

“It was that horse you used to have,” Guerrero told Chito.

“Well, tell me that name,’’ Chito asked.

Then, Guerrero told him he was the buyer of Malibu Star.

“What, did you buy that horse?” Chito asked. “That was something very special. I was very surprised.”

Malibu Star, a son of the great Giant’s Causeway, was sold to Gary and Mary West at the 2018 Keeneland September Sale for $450,000. The colt was turned over to trainer Bob Baffert, but made just one start for Baffert at Santa Anita before being sent east to trainer Kelly Breen.

After the colt broke his maiden at Aqueduct in December 2020 for the Wests, he was promptly sold. Malibu Star did not win for those owners and was claimed for $16,000 in February 2022. He did not win after that claim and then was claimed again by owner/trainer William Hogan for $7,500 in June 2022. Malibu Star won twice and finished second once in three starts for Hogan over just a month’s time. Hogan made $64,000 in purses and the claiming price.

Now, Malibu Star is right back where he has been since last July.

“I had options with the horse with the trainers,” Guerrero said. “Of course, my brothers would have been one of the options. But I also knew Chito. I know what kind of work he does. He worked for my brother Carlos back in the day. And he got to know the horse so good.”

So Malibu Star went back to Chito. And the colt is running just like he never left. In his first start back for Chito, Malibu Star, sent off at 1-2 last Wednesday, crushed his field by 9 lengths under Jeremy Laprida, who has ridden him during this dominating four-race win streak, with Beyer figures of 94, 98, 99 and 93.

“He feels like he owns the race track,” Guerrero said of Malibu Star.

And the horse runs just that way.

“He passed those horses like they were standing still,” Guerrero said.

Chito worked as a hot walker for his uncle, Park Hall of Famer Lupe Preciado. Carlos Guerrero taught him how to gallop horses. He worked for Scott Lake, who has won more races at Parx than anybody and is a charter member of the Hall of Fame. He was at Fair Hill with Bruce Jackson. He also worked for Hall of Famer Kate DeMasi and spent five years working with the starting gate crew. He became a trainer in 2020 and now has a barn full of horses.

Malibu Star cost all that money at the yearling sale partially because of his pedigree. Now, with the race record to match, there is a chance the horse could become a stallion someday. For now, there are more races and purses to be won. If Malibu Star does become a successful stallion, that $140,000 is going to seem like even more of a bargain.


By Dick Jerardi

It was 5 1/2  hours between the horrifying moment when Havnameltdown broke down last Saturday at Pimlico and National Treasure crossed the finish line first in the Preakness. The 3-year-old colts, costing a collective $700,000, were in nearby stalls in the stakes barn when Preakness Day began. When the racing day ended, National Treasure was being walked back to his stall after being draped with Black Eyed Susans while Havnameltdown’s stall was empty.

If ever there was a time that exemplified horse racing circa spring 2023, Saturday afternoon at Pimlico, its old grandstand condemned, awaiting state funding to take down its obsolete main building and build a new one, was it.

An hour before the Preakness back at the barn where National Treasure and Havnameltdown had been housed all week, the tears streaking Jill Baffert’s face told one story. Minutes after the Preakness, what passed for celebration told another.

That both horses are/were in trainer Bob Baffert’s care made the juxtaposition of death and victory “the’’ story of Preakness Day. Havnameltdown’s front leg injury was so catastrophic that there was no way the brilliantly fast and talented colt could be saved. Why it happened is a question with no obvious answer, but that is not going to stop anybody from thinking they know what happened, why it happened and who is responsible. 

The truth is somewhat more elusive.

Depending on your point of view, Baffert is either horse racing’s Lance Armstrong or the best big race trainer of his generation, a master of the Triple Crown races, the 2023 Preakness his record 17th TC win. There is not much middle ground.

I find myself in that unexplored middle ground. I have known Baffert for 25 years and have found him accessible and reasonable. Do I have any idea what goes on behind the scenes at his barn? Nope. When people ask me if Baffert is clean or cheating, my answer is unsatisfying: I don’t know.

The word “doping’’ is now thrown around indiscriminately, the difference between therapeutic drugs and performance enhancing drugs unexplained by racing authorities or much of the media. The testing world is, at best, murky which explains why it is so difficult to understand. Hopefully, HISA will be better at explaining what has heretofore been so often misunderstood.

Here is what I know to be true. Trainers using performance enhancers are not that difficult to spot. When horses improve their speed figures overnight by 20 or 30 points, that is not because the horse’s feed has been changed.

Baffert’s horses rarely show that kind of overnight improvement. I liked National Treasure to win the Preakness for several reasons: 1. The colt looked like he would control the race from the front in moderate fractions which is exactly what happened, 2. It was a historically weak Preakness with only one Kentucky Derby alum for the first time in 75 years, 3. The colt’s recent workouts which I watched on XBTV were brilliant, 4. The tapes of his races all ended the same way, with National Treasure winning the gallop out no matter where he finished.

National Treasure was a colt with untapped talent. The 2023 Preakness was the perfect spot to reveal it. There was nothing magical about what happened. It was all fundamentals.

When he arrived in Baltimore late last week, Baffert was back at a Triple Crown race for the first time in exactly two years. He missed the 2022 Triple Crown because of a 90-day suspension resulting from a positive for an anti-inflammatory in Medina Spirit’s system after the colt finished first in the 2021 Derby. Given what was known at the time, the suspension was not unreasonable, but the circumstances of how the medication ended up in the horse’s system remain in dispute and will eventually be decided in court.

If Baffert had not had other similar violations just prior to Medina Spirit, he may have even gotten the benefit of the doubt. There was nothing in any of those violations that constituted “doping.’’ That, however, got lost in the headlines after Churchill Downs suspended Baffert for two years which is why he did not have a horse in the 2023 Derby.

If Havnameltdown had not broken down, “the’’ story would have been about the Preakness winner after Baffert’s return from Triple Crown exile. But Havnameltdown did break down and did have to be euthanized so the story got far more complicated.

We all know horses are fragile animals which run at high speeds on 1,000-pound frames. The incidents of these tragic breakdowns have come down across North America in recent years as more stringent protocols have been put into place. It is unlikely a horse with Forte’s issues would have been scratched from the Derby even five years ago. Hopefully, HISA will be able to help reduce breakdowns even more, but we are not going to get to zero.

Why there was this cluster of horse deaths Derby Week at Churchill Downs, with two on Derby Day and then Havnameltdown on the Preakness undercard, is unexplained at this point.

Baffert, especially, is a lightning rod, both because of his unprecedented success, a history of medication violations (not all that different in severity or frequency from some of his brethren) and horses that have died in his care. The “Washington Post’’ did a study a few years ago that suggested Baffert’s horses died at a frequency higher than almost any trainer in Southern California. Baffert’s lawyers disputed the study’s methodology.

I could certainly be wrong about this, but Havnameltdown is the first Baffert horse I remember breaking down on a major racing day. What happened over a period of years in Southern California, I do not know. But if the Post’s numbers are accurate, there is or at least was a problem.

I am actually pretty good at saying I don’t know, a phrase that has pretty much disappeared from the lexicon in a world where so many think they know so much about everything and can’t imagine being wrong about anything. So the Baffert haters were out in force after Havnameltdown’s breakdown.

Me? I just felt sadness for the horse, his caretakers and his owners. Blame is so easy to ascribe, facts so much more difficult to ascertain.

So, Bob Baffert is back, winning his record eighth Preakness. How he acts or what he says is received depending on a point of view long held and unlikely to be changed. And this is what he said the morning after the Preakness: “To me, the memory of the race would be that I lost Havnameltdown. It was nice to win the race, but to me it was a pretty sad day.’’   



By Dick Jerardi

You watch Sofia Vives ride and you would never know she has ridden fewer than 100 races. She looks like an absolute natural – smooth and confident as she guides her mounts into and out of tight spots, giving them a chance if they are good enough.

Last Monday at Parx, Vives had her horses that were good enough in the right spots so often that the young apprentice got her first three-win day.

It all makes sense when you confirm that she missed her high school graduation because it was the first day she ever got to breeze a horse, that she once dressed up as a jockey for Halloween, that riding horses is all she has ever wanted to do.

“I have never thought of anything else,” Vives said. “A lot of people ask me if you could pick another career, what would it be? I don’t even know. I don’t know anything besides horses.”

Growing up, she had a chalkboard on one of her bedroom doors with the words “jocks room” on it.

Her father has been galloping and working horses for Hall of Fame trainer Mark Casse for more than 20 years. Sofia grew up at the Casse Racing/Training Center in Ocala, Florida. Her father was a jockey from 1993 to 2000, riding at Penn National. His last ride was at Parx on Sept. 5, 2000, a few years before Sofia, 20, was born. Lazaro Vives had 4,504 mounts with 677 wins and almost $6 million in earnings. Sofia’s uncle, Juan Vives, also rode at Penn National during his career from 1987-1997. He had 7,715 mounts with 891 winners and $5.7 million in earnings.

“He’s got a lot of photo books in the garage, but no videos,” Sofia said of her dad.

Her dad, Sofia said, did not know anything about horses.

“He thought horses just ate grass, he had no clue,” she said. “If you hear his stories, it was amazing to see how he was brought up into it. He did very good for himself.”

And his daughter is doing very well for herself. She rides at Parx on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, catches a 9 p.m. flight to Toronto Wednesday nights and then rides at Woodbine Thursday through Sunday. Monday mornings, she is back at the airport at 4 in the morning for the plane trip back to Philadelphia.

“As soon as I get to the airport, I uber right to the jocks’ room, and ride races,” Vives said.

When she is at Parx, she stays with her grandmother Alma Cummings who works in the Phonebet business office and lives about 20 minutes from the track. Sofia has her own bedroom there and her “grandmom makes the best dinners.”

Vives won four races quickly at Woodbine last fall, but, because they don’t have year round racing there, she was able to freeze her apprentice year until the track reopened in April.

Vives’ mother, Marie, is the nursing supervisor of the main hospital near the Casse facility. She once worked on the backside and then put herself through nursing school.

“I have to give her major credit because she did it all on her own,” Sofia said. “She did it maybe eight years ago.”

Vives has an older sister with two children, making her “probably the youngest aunt you’ve ever met.”

Her mother was not thrilled Sofia did not want to attend that high school graduation.

“I didn’t want to buy the cap and gown,” Vives said.  “I didn’t care about any of it. I just wanted to go to work.”

Of course.

Her three win day was capped when Neecie Marie won race 6 for trainer Butch Reid.

“Which was nice having my mom’s name in it,” Vives said.

The 7-day per week schedule, plane rides, preparation to ride and then riding are quite different from what she had been doing.

“Coming from just galloping horses and having the whole afternoon off to go to the pool or do whatever to hustling it out seven days a week, it is a lot,” Vives said. “It is a lot being on my own sometimes, but it is for the best, to teach me how to be on my own and to not rely on anybody. I’ve always been very independent.”

Whether she is at Woodbine or Parx, Vives has also been getting on horses in the morning.

So when exactly does she sleep?

“Any chance I get,” Vives said.

And winning a race, what does that feel like?

“I get tingles the whole way, galloping out coming back,” Sofia Vives said. “It’s such a nice feeling. The horses know too when they win. They come back strong. They know. They are very, very smart animals.”

Vives rode just 16 races over six days at Woodbine last fall. She finished second in her first two races before winning her third. After that fourth win, she hit the pause button because the Woodbine meet was nearing an end and she wanted to preserve that apprenticeship. She returned April 17 at Parx. In her first 38 mounts at Parx, Vives had 8 wins, 3 seconds and 5 thirds. This being the humbling sport of horse racing, after that three-win day, Vives did not win a race over 23 rides at Parx and Woodbine. But that will not deter a jockey who has been determined to do what she is doing for just about forever.


By Dick Jerardi

I covered the Kentucky Derby in person 32 times, once for a paper in Baltimore, 31 times for the “Philadelphia Daily News.’’ I was there once as a fan/player and once to experience the scene again and chronicle it for this site.

In my experience, there has never been a Derby Week like 2023. By the time the 18 horses emerged from the starting gate at Churchill Downs on Saturday evening at 7 p.m., we had five scratches, including morning line favorite Forte Derby morning. The three also eligibles drew into the race.

There was sadness after several breakdowns, including two on the Derby Day undercard,  that resulted in euthanasia. There were two unexplained horse deaths after races from trainer Saffie Joseph’s barn that resulted in Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Racing Commission ruling that none of Joseph’s horses could run at Churchill over the weekend. And those horses included Wood Memorial winner and Derby entrant Lord Miles.

Thankfully, the Derby itself delivered like it always does, an all-time great jocking finally winning “the’’ race in his 16th try, a legendary trainer from Venezuela finding a way to get a horse making just his fourth start to deliver an incredible performance for an eclectic ownership group that had way too many people to fit into the winner’s circle.

Mage was 15-1 not because he did not have talent, but because it seemed unlikely he could run the race of his life after not making his debut until Jan. 28 and racing hard in two key Derby preps (fourth behind Forte in the Fountain of Youth and second behind Forte in the Florida Derby). It just seemed like it was asking too much.

Turned out, trainer Gustavo Delgado, a champion many times over in his native country, knew exactly what he was doing with what, on paper, looked like very slow 6-furlong works prior to the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby. He had come to America to win the big races, and when Mage charged from far back in the field to run down Two Phil’s in the stretch, he had won the biggest race of all.

And it was just perfect symmetry that Mage was ridden by Hall of Famer Javier Castellano, himself a Venezuela native. Castellano had won just about every big race there is – except the Derby. His $382 million in career earnings is second all-time to John Velazquez. His 5,148 wins make him one of just 37 with 5,000 or more. But there was something missing. Now, it is no longer missing.

Pat Day won just a single Derby. Laffit Pincay won just one

Derby. Now, Castellano, one of the good guys in the game, has won his.

How hard is the Derby to win?

Trainer Steve Asmussen has won a North American record 10,092 races. He is 0-for-26 in the Derby. The riding Ortiz brothers (Irad and Jose) have combined for nearly $500 million in earnings. They have won more than 6,000 races between them. Neither has won the Derby.

Irad has ridden Forte in all his races. Forte has four Grade I wins. The 18 horses that ran in the Derby have combined for three. Irad ended up riding Cyclone Mischief who finished last, 55 1/2 lengths behind Mage, who had twice lost to Forte. It is a very tough and unpredictable game.

Two Phil’s finished a gallant second to Mage, with favored Pennsylvania bred Angel of Empire making a late run to finish third.

I picked Two Phil’s and bet on him at almost 10-1. I thought he ran as well as a horse can run without winning. After a half mile, there were five horses in the vicinity of the hot early pace – Confidence Game, Reincarnate, Kingsbarns, Verifying and Two Phil’s. Confidence Game finished 10th, beaten by 14 1/2 lengths. Reincarnate was 13th, 24 1/2 lengths behind, just ahead of Kingsbarns who was 25 1/2 lengths back. Verifying finished 16th, 54 3/4 lengths behind Mage.

Two Phil’s was beaten by just 1 length while his fellow pace setters/pressers were beaten by a combined 119 lengths. It is satisfying to know you made a good selection, but this game is so hard that when you are right about the performance, you would really like to get a good result.

In the end, we all get what we get. Churchill Downs got 150,335 fans for Derby 149. No telling how many they may squeeze in for Derby 150 next May. But let’s hope the race produces another great story and without all of the Derby Week drama.


By Dick Jerardi

A year ago, I undertook a study of how the decade-old points system affected the way the Kentucky Derby was run and its results. The conclusion was that early position meant everything as the meltdown paces under the old system were no more. After the first quarter mile, the last eight winners were 3, 3, 2, 2, 2, 1, 1, 1. The results, with favorite after favorite winning, all made perfect sense.

And then, 80-1 Rich Strike happened.

The early pace of the 2022 Derby was historically fast (:21.78, : 45.36). What happened after that was predictable. The horses that were 1, 2, 3, 4 after a quarter mile finished 20, 13, 10, 15. The horses that were 17, 8, 13, 15 after a quarter mile finished 1, 2, 3, 4.

That scorching pace had given a horse like Rich Strike a chance he would not have had in any other recent Derby.

This year, beyond the fact that the top contenders look very evenly matched (where have you gone California Chrome, American Pharoah and Justify?), there is almost no quality early speed. In fact, the 20 horses have combined to start 119 times, but just 12 times has any of the horses been in front at the first call. And it’s unclear how fast any of that group really is and what the jockey intentions will be on what passes for speed in this Derby with Verifying, Two Phil’s, Confidence Game, Kingsbarns, Reincarnate, Mage, Jace’s Road and Derma Sotogake.

I think Reincarnate is the most likely early leader, but that will require jockey John Velazquez to ride much more aggressively than in the colt’s last two starts. No doubt, Velazquez has not forgotten he went wire to wire to finish first in the 2020 and 2021 Derby.

There is no argument about the most accomplished horse in the race. It’s Forte. The field has combined for seven Grade I wins. Forte has four of them. The colt has won five straight. He was the 2-year-old champion. Todd Pletcher has started 62 horses to the Derby, but Forte has a better resume than any of them.

The issues with Forte are that he has not gotten any faster than he was 6 months ago, he will be favored and he will have to pass a bunch of these horses. If it’s not Forte for Pletcher, it could be impressive Blue Grass winner Tapit Trice or Louisiana Derby winner Kingsbarns, giving Pletcher the winner from three of the final six major Derby preps.

If it’s not Pletcher, it certainly could be Brad Cox. His four horses give those two trainers 35 percent of the field. Cox’s crew is not nearly as accomplished as Pletcher’s, but no horse was any more impressive in a final Big Six prep than Arkansas Derby winner and Pennsylvania bred Angel of Empire. Jockey Flavien Prat had a choice of Kingsbarns or Angel of Empire. He chose the Pa. bred and he is very smart.

The wild card is the Japanese horse Derma Sotogake. I would not be concerned about the dreadful record of UAE Derby winners in the KY Derby. I would look at this colt through the lens of recent Japanese international success. And consider this: his UAE Derby time computes as faster than the $12 million Dubai World Cup time later on the same card.

Not sure if the form will translate from Tapeta, but I was super impressed by how Two Phil’s won the Jeff Ruby Steaks. And when I looked back at his dirt races, I saw an improving colt who kept running well after the finish line every time.

So, there it is: Derby 149. Could be Forte. Could be some impossible longshot. Could be something in between. Can’t wait to find out.


By Dick Jerardi

Angel of Empire will try to become the third Pennsylvania bred to win the Kentucky Derby after Lil E Tee (1992) and Smarty Jones (2004). The Arkansas Derby winner is a testament to the strength of Pa. breds nationally.

The first two Parx stakes of 2023 were a testament to the influence and ability of state breds locally. Monday’s $100,000 Unique Bella (for fillies and mares) and the $100,000 Page McKenney Handicap, both at 7 furlongs, featured horses that after the races were run had combined earnings of more than $5 million.

Trainer Butch Reid looked like a cinch to win the Unique Bella even before the field of seven was scratched down to four. Of the remaining four, Reid trained three, including 3-10 favorite Disco Ebo and 9-5 second choice Morning Matcha. By the time the horses came out of the starting gate, there were two questions: which Reid horse would win and would his horses run 1-2-3?

The somewhat surprising answer to the first question was Morning Matcha whose best races have been around two turns. The answer to the second question was a definitive yes. Morning Matcha, Disco Ebo and Ninetypercentbyrnn ran 1-2-3 with the three jockeys wearing the pink silks of Glenn Bennettt’s LC Racing.

Even though two turns may be her speciality, Morning Matcha, also owned by Chuck Zacney’s Cash Is King and Gary Barber, loves racing at Parx. In seven starts at her home track, she has five wins, 1 second and 1 third. In her 11 races away from Parx, she has no wins, four seconds and four thirds.

“She came in really fresh,” Reid said of Morning Matcha. “We’re excited for a big year from her. She’s put on weight. Physically and mentally, she’s very mature.”

Reid said they are thinking about the Delaware Handicap, with the Obeah as a prep at Delaware Park.

The Unique Bella’s final time suggested the trainer may be on to something with his 4-year-old filly. Morning Matcha went the distance in 1:25.32 while the quality males a race later in the Page McKenney finished in 1:25.81.

Reid has been the dominant stakes trainer at Parx in recent years, but even he had not run 1-2-3 in a stake – until now.

Paco Lopez kept Morning Matcha much closer to Disco Ebo’s pace than might have been expected. The two stabemates hooked up in the stretch and Morning Matcha gradually pulled away to win by 2 lengths, with Disco Ebo 8 1/4 lengths clear of Ninetypercentbrynn, with Trolley Ride back in fourth.

“I was very surprised (at her early speed),” Bennett said. “I thought she would be back like she usually is, but Paco had her up front. Frankie (Pennington) looked like he was sitting chilly on Disco, but Matcha was much the best today.”

The public decided the Page McKenney would come down to 9-5 Uncle Ernie and 2-1 Beren. Twisted Ride was somewhat overlooked at 6-1. That turned out to be a mistake.

Breaking on top from his inside post, Twisted Ride was never far in front. But when they hit the wire, they don’t ask how far. They just ask: did the horse get there?

Twisted Ride got there, just got there. Uncle Ernie was coming to his outside and Beren, after having to be steadied at the start, was coming to his inside. Twisted Ride held on by a desperate nose over Uncle Ernie, with Beren another three-quarters of a length behind in third.

The win was Twisted Ride’s fourth straight and seventh in 14 career starts for trainer Michael Moore and owners Kasey K Stable (Bob Krangel), Michael Day and Final Turn Racing Stable.

“He gets in front and they come to him and he keeps on going,” Moore said. “That being said, I didn’t know at the end if he let it get too close. I thought he might have gotten nailed right there at the wire.”

Jockey Andy Hernandez is perfect in three tries on Twisted Ride, including the March 7 Fishtown at Parx.

“My horse likes to fight,” Hernandez said. “He’s unbelievable.”

Four in a row is hard against any competition. To beat that field with combined earnings of nearly $3 million clearly demonstrated the quality of Twisted Ride.

“He’s been so good and this race, it’s really the best Pa. sprinters there are,” Moore said. “To be able to beat Beren and Uncle Ernie, it was a really good race.”