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.”