Pennsylvania Derby Day at Parx—with its five stakes, including two $1 million Grade I races with some of the best horses, trainers and jockeys in the country, a 90-minute television show, huge crowds and enthusiastic bettors—has become a local event and a day where Parx Racing is squarely in the national spotlight.
Since the PA Derby and Cotillion were placed on the same late September Saturday, the big day has never failed to deliver on its promise. Who can forget California Chrome’s appearance in 2014 or, in 2016, the Cotillion matching unbeaten Songbird and Parx-based Kentucky Oaks winner Cathryn Sophia just prior to Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist and Preakness winner Exaggerator in the PA Derby?
Those were memorable days with the two highest betting handles in track history ($10.3 million in 2014, $9.6 million in 2016). But there really has never been anything like Sept. 22, 2018.
The 13-race card was so sensational that it generated a handle of $8.9 million, third-best in Parx Racing history. And that was just part of the story.
In the final yards of the $300,000 Gallant Bob Stakes (G3), 17-1 shot Whereshetoldmetogo either tried to bite favored and eventual race winner Firenze Fire, jockey Irad Ortiz, or both.
“I’ve never had that happen before,” a stunned Ortiz said as he walked back through the walking ring to the jockey’s room.
When it was replayed on the big screen, the crowd reacted as if they just saw something they had never seen or expected to see—shocked, amazed and not a little entertained. Track announcer Keith Jones, who has been calling races at Parx for more than three decades, had never seen it either.
Thankfully, no jockeys or horses were injured so the incident was just something to talk about. And talk everybody did.
Then the day got even more interesting. The wonderful 3-year-old filly Monomoy Girl finished first in the $1 million Cotillion, the ninth time in her 10 starts she crossed the wire in front.
Most of the action, however, came after the race when Mike Smith, riding second-place finisher Midnight Bisou, claimed foul against jockey Florent Geroux and Monomoy Girl.
“I was going straight as an arrow to stay in my path,” Smith said. “But when (Momomoy Girl) chose to come over and take it from me, I chose the outer route. There probably would not have been a DQ if (Geroux) would have stayed straight at that point, but he came out again and we wound up in the eight or nine path. I never got a straight run and we got beat only a neck. You got to do what you got to do.”
After a long look at replays, the Parx stewards agreed with Smith, disqualified Monomoy Girl from first to second and made Midnight Bisou the winner.
“I’ve been on both ends of it and you hate to have anything happen like that,” Smith said. “She (Monomoy Girl) is just a brilliant filly but my mare deserves a fair chance and I don’t think she got one.”
It was a stretch run that certainly deserved scrutiny, but it was certainly no easy call for the stewards.
“It was close,” Geroux said. “(Monomoy Girl) wandered around when she made the lead.”
Both fillies will resume their rivalry (this was their third meeting) in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff the first Saturday of November at Churchill Downs. There, they will meet last year’s 3-year-old filly champion Abel Tasman, the runner-up in the 2017 Cotillion. So, horses that raced on Parx’s big day will yet again have a major impact on the Breeders’ Cup.
There are serious Breeders’ Cup implications for Pennsylvania Derby winner McKinzie as well. Despite not having raced in six months, the Bob Baffert-trained McKinzie was able to run away from the field on the far turn and repulse a stretch bid by recent Smarty Jones Stakes (G3) winner Axelrod to win the PA Derby while earning a career-best 107 Beyer speed figure, the kind of number that puts him squarely among the top contenders for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
It was the incredible Smith-Baffert combination that teamed up to win the PA Derby for the second consecutive year after West Coast romped in 2017.
“He just picked up where left off,” Baffert texted about McKinzie a few hours after the race.
Indeed, he did. Baffert was pretty sure he was going to win the Kentucky Derby with McKinzie when 2018 began. Then, McKinzie got hurt in the spring and Justify emerged all the way to the Triple Crown for Baffert and Smith.
“If anything can take away from the sting of a Triple Crown horse retiring, it’s a horse like this,” Smith said. “He is an incredible horse. Really, really proud of him. Bob had him ready. To come off the bench at a mile and an eighth, Bob is just a tremendous trainer. I felt very confident that I could be aggressive early and move a little early.”
With McKinzie’s electric run, another glorious Pennsylvania Derby Day was done. The memories will linger, of those crazy final yards in the Gallant Bob, the wild stretch run in the Cotillion followed by the stewards’ decision, and the Baffert-Smith combination winning the Pennsylvania Derby again. Can’t wait until next September when we get to do it all over again.