labor day favorites

By Dick Jerardi

Chub Wagon had been perfect through eight starts until finally losing, a strong second on an unfamiliar sloppy surface in her previous start. Sweet Willemina had started four times since being claimed in June and won them all.

 The form of the two 4-year-old fillies was impossible to ignore in the two $100,000 stakes at Parx on Labor Day. Chub Wagon was 3-10 in the 6 1/2-furlong Roamin Rachel, Sweet Willemina 3-5 in the 1 1/18-mile Salvatore M. DeBunda PTHA President’s Cup. The results were never in doubt.

Chub Wagon sat off a moderate pace set by an extreme longshot, cruised to the lead under regular jockey Jomar Torres and won by a convincing 4 lengths. Sweet Willemina essentially ran the same race under Silvestre Gonzalez, sitting just behind a front-running longshot, blowing by on the far turn to open up an insurmountable lead that was 7 lengths at the wire.

So Chub Wagon is now 9-for-10, with that second for owners Danny Lopez and George Chestnut. When asked if they had ever been around a horse that ran so brilliantly in every race, Lopez and Chub Wagon’s trainer Lupe Preciado each had a one-word answer: “No.’’

Sweet Willemina was claimed for $32,000 on June 17 at Churchill Downs by trainer Scott Lake for his Home Team Stable and owner Rich Ciavardone.

 “She just had all the lifetime conditions,’’ Lake said when asked why he claimed the filly. “Just looked like a horse that would come here and go through all those conditions.’’

Well, she went through them perfectly and emerged as an odds-on favorite in a $100,000 stake.

“It’s unbelievable, the ones you dream of,’’ Lake said.

When the previous week’s drenching rains took the President’s Cup off the grass, it was perfect for Sweet Willemina who was entered for the main track only.

“She’s very cool,’’ said Gonzalez, who has ridden her in all five wins. “She’s got a lot of heart. She just listens to me really well. She’s able to rate and wait and knows when to make the run down the stretch.’’

Chub Wagon was finally beaten two weeks prior to the Roamin Rachel, but she gave a huge effort.

“Her last race, she just didn’t handle the going and the winner ran a lifetime best,’’ Lopez said.

 Even in defeat, she still fired. In Roamin Rachel, Chub Wagon was always in control.

“Every time she runs, she runs impressively,’’ Preciado said. “It does not look like an accident.’’

Lopez, the longtime trainer, and Preciado, the Parx Hall of Famer, have become a formidable team with Chub Wagon. They have trained a combined 3,568 winners in their careers, 2,035 for Preciado, 1,533 for Lopez.

“Before she ever ran, I told Lupe this filly could be the best filly I’ve ever bred,’’ Lopez said. “And I got two full sisters behind her.’’

Lake, a member of the initial Parx Hall of Fame class and sixth all-time with 6,202 wins, has made a career of smart claims. Sweet Willemina is just the most recent.

“She still has a lot of starter conditions,’’ Lake said when asked what might be next.

The filly had won just once in 14 starts before Lake claimed her. She has been perfect for him.

The two stakes were named for the PTHA president and his greatest horse, Parx Hall of Famer Roamin Rachel.

“When I first got involved with the horsemen, people said `don’t do it, you’ll never be appreciated,’’’ DeBunda said.

“Here’s a race named after me as the president. To all those people who said don’t do it, you were wrong. I do feel appreciated.’’

Labor Day marked the seventh racing day back after the August break. Four of those days featured stakes races so the racing has been terrific, setting the table for the only Saturday card of the year, Pennsylvania Derby Day on Sept. 25.

Top horses, trainers, and jockeys will be coming from around the country for what has become the nation’s most important September race day every year.

“I remember back when the Pennsylvania Derby was $250,000 and that was a big stake,’’ DeBunda said. “We decided (PTHA executive director) Mike Ballezzi and I and the board of the PTHA decided that we need to really bring recognition to our track and we thought by having that day with (two $1 million races, the Grade I Pa. Derby and Grade I Cotillion and stakes all day long) was really going to bring recognition about what we do and how great a race track it is to come to and train and own horses and it’s really worked out in my opinion. We’ve had some Derby winners, Preakness winners…I think it’s been a good investment for us.’’

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