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.