By Dick Jerardi
Two days after Christmas, on the final racing day at Parx in 2023, just 5 days before Park legend Smarty Jones turns 23, the fans were treated to two stakes performances to remember and a 10-race card (with a giant Philly Big 5 carryover) intriguing enough to generate a $6.5 million handle.
Aiofe’s (pronounced Efa’s) Magic had won her three races by a combined 19 1/4 lengths. She had won at 5 1/2 furlongs, 6 1/2 furlongs and 6 furlongs. She had won near the lead and from off the pace. She had won in the slop. She had won a stakes race.
The 2-year-old filly, owned by Art Hetherington, trained by David Dotolo and ridden by Wilfred Vasquez, would have been interesting under any circumstance. That she is by Smarty Jones raised the stakes exponentially. As long as horses are bred in Pennsylvania and race at the state’s tracks, the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner will be the standard.
So could Aiofe’s Magic negotiate two turns for the first time in the $200,000 Miss Behaviour Stakes for Pa. breds by Pa. sires? The players, who made her a 3-5 favorite, certainly thought so. It was not a strong field so even though Aiofe’s Magic had not put up big speed figures, she looked much the best on paper.
It turned out exactly that way on the track. The filly hit the front immediately after the start of the 1 mile and 70 yard race. While there were always horses near her, there was never any danger of any of them passing her.
The track surface, wet and sealed after an all-day rain, was yielding very slow times. Still, this pace was really slow – :25.13, 50.83, 117.95, 1:46.60, with a final time of 1:51.38. In the end, Aoife’s Magic won by a comfortable 3 lengths.
The $112,800 first prize money increased her bankroll to $261,600 as she finished her 2-year-old season unbeaten in four starts.
“She’s just a nice horse,” Dotolo said. “She’s just so kind to be around, other than her little kicky stuff after she trains…As soon as she goes into her stall, she does everything very professionally…She’s just a joy to be around. I’ve never won four in a row…She’s the best one I’ve ever had. There’s no doubt about it.”
Hetherington had never had a horse win three straight before Aoife’s Magic did it. Now, it’s four.
“It just keeps getting better,” the owner said. “It’s hard to describe how she makes you feel. Of course, building up to the race, I’m as anxious as can be because it’s horse racing. Today, she really proved herself.”
As for 2024, time will tell, but the reality is that Aoife’s Magic’s times don’t suggest she can win open stakes races, unless she is that rare horse who just runs fast enough to beat whatever is in against her.
“We’ll look at the (condition) books,” Dotolo said. “She doesn’t have any conditions left so she’ll have to run in a stake so it will probably be a tougher field than this, but she’s a tough filly.”
The $200,000 Wait For It, the male division with the same Pennsylvania conditions, was a much more competitive race, with a pair of outstanding colts separated by just $3,000 in the wagering, Notice of Action the 6-5 favorite, with Uncle Heavy just behind at 13-10.
Notice of Action had first run into the stretch, opening up a daylight lead under Andy Hernandez for trainer Bobbi Ann Hawthorne. But Uncle Heavy who was very wide on the first turn and on the backstretch for rider Mychel Sanchez and trainer Butch Reid, was relentless, with a long sustained move that was good enough to power by the slight favorite in the final yards, eventually winning by 1 1/4 lengths.
Uncle Heavy, owned by Mike Milam, named for Parx icon Mark Reid and bred by his wife Barbara, ran his 1 mile and 70 yards in 1:48.68, 2.7 seconds faster than Aoife’s Magic.
Uncle Heavy was brilliant in debut, incredibly unlucky when eliminated at the start of the Pa. Nursery and an absolute powerhouse in his second stakes try.
When asked how strong Uncle Heavy was in the stretch, Sanchez said. “really strong.”
Milam is on a roll with the good grass filly Neecie Marie. Now, he has a colt who looks like he could be a factor in 2024 open stakes races.
“I’m stunned by it all,” Milam said.
So, what about 2024?
“Mark, being an old Maryland guy, he wants to win the Preakness, Milam said. “Butch and I will settle for the Pa. Derby.”
Butch Reid, finishing off another record season, said: “I had a feeling he was a natural route of ground horse. That proved to be the case today. He was wide almost the whole trip around there showed a lot of gameness…There’s going to be a lot of opportunities coming up for his 3-year-old year.”
Indeed, there will be many opportunities for these talented 2–year-olds. So, with that, on to 2024.