By Dick Jerardi
It has been two years so the anticipation for Saturday’s Pennsylvania Derby Day at Parx is as high as it’s ever been. And the race card may very well be the best in the history of the race track.
The 13 races have combined purses of $3.74 million. The eight stakes, starting in race 6 and continuing through race 13, have purses of $3.4 million. The biggest names in the sport have entered horses for the biggest race day in the Commonwealth all year and America’s biggest race day in the month of September.
Four Hall of Fame trainers (Bob Baffert, Steve Asmussen, Bill Mott and Todd Pletcher) have entered 11 horses. Chad Brown, Brad Cox and Doug O’Neill, all headed to the Hall of Fame, have entered five. Two Parx Hall of Famers, John Servis and Butch Reid, have entered 11.
The jockeys are among the very best in the sport – John Velazquez, Joel Rosario, Flavien Prat, Jose Ortiz, Luis Saez, Ricardo Santana, Florent Geroux and Paco Lopez as well as Parx Hall of Famers Kendrick Carmouche and Frankie Pennington.
And it is called horse racing for a reason. There are so many fabulous horses on the card.
The $1 million Grade I Pa. Derby (race 12) has four of the top seven finishers from the Kentucky Derby, including winner Medina Spirit and Louisiana Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie who finished third. Midnight Bourbon, second in the Preakness, Travers and La. Derby, is the very definition of solid. The race has every top 3-year-old in training with the notable exception of division leader Essential Quality.
Upsets are always possible, but the winner most likely will be Hot Rod Charlie (O’Neill/Prat) or Medina Spirit (Velazquez/Baffert). Both are fast, accomplished and consistent.
The $1 million Grade 1 Cotillion (race 11) has a terrific cast of 3-year-old fillies, led by Grade I CCA Oaks winner Maracuja who will be ridden by Carmouche for trainer Rob Atras. Asmussen has Clairiere (Santana) who always fires against the best of the division. Army Wife (Mike Maker/Rosario) won the Black Eyed Susan and Iowa Oaks. Servis sends out Monmouth Oaks winner Leader of the Band (Pennington) for local owner Will Schwartz.
The $300,000 Grade II Gallant Bob (race 10) features the fastest 3-year-old sprinter in the country in Jackie’s Warrior, a neck from being unbeaten in eight one-turn races for the Asmussen/Rosario combination. The colt will be a very short price and won’t take long to negotiate the 6 furlongs. The Reid-trainer Beren, with four wins at Parx, will be among those trying to pull off a huge upset.
The $300,000 Grade III Turf Monster (race 9) is headlined by the very consistent Carotari and the brilliant Pennsylvania-bred filly Caravel, unbeaten in five grass races at 5 or 5 ½ furlongs. This race is at 5 furlongs and has been won by such greats as Ben’s Cat, Pure Sensation and Chamberlain Bridge.
The $200,000 marathon that is the Greenwood Cup (race 8) includes Math Wizard, the 30-1 upset winner of the 2019 Pa. Derby, the last one run until Saturday after last year’s cancellation due to the pandemic.
The $200,000 Parx Dirt Mile (Race 7) would be a headliner many days, with multiple stakes winner such as Mind Control ($1,299,229 in earnings) and Silver State ($1,865,094) as well as millionaire Warrior’s Charge, part owned by Parx regular Marshall Gramm’s Ten Strike Racing.
It is such a strong card that lock Parx Horse of the Year Chub Wagon will run in the first of the stakes, The $200,000 Plum Pretty (Race 6) for Pa. Breds. The 4-year-old filly, trained by Parx Hall of Famer Lupe Preciado and ridden by Jomar Torres, will be making her first start around two turns. It is a strong field, but the only chance for an upset is if Chub Wagon is not at all effective at a mile and a sixteenth. She is going to be in front so she will have a distinct tactical advantage.
The $200,000 Alphabet Soup Handicap (Race 13) for Pa. Breds going a mile and a sixteenth on grass, includes the wonderful Wait for It (12 wins, $638,108 in earnings). Almost all of that money has been earned on the main track with one grass start, a third in a 2018 Pa. Bred stake.
If you can’t make it to the track, you can check it all out on PHL 17 (4-6 p.m.), with the Pa. Derby, Cotillion and Gallant Bob live and several other stakes on tape.
More than ever, horse racing is an event-driven sport, with major events more popular than ever. Over the last decade, Pennsylvania Derby Day has become one of those events. And the 2021 version promises to be one of the very best.
By Dick Jerardi
When Precious crossed the wire first in the Aug. 23 Mrs. Penny Stakes at Parx, Grew Newell began to celebrate. Only his celebration may have been a bit louder and more demonstrative and definitely more emotional than most. He had his reasons.
Newell is the president of the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders’ Association. The Mrs. Penny was one of five $100,000 stakes during Pa. Day At The Races, a card that featured only Pennsylvania breds. It was the first time he owned “anything close to a stakes horse in years.’’ And Precious just happens to be his wife Kathy’s nickname. The 4-year-old filly was born just about the same time Kathy got a breast cancer diagnosis.
“Needless to say, that was pretty devastating,’’ Newwell said. “The great news is my wife is fully recovered, but the name Precious was a. her nickname and b. life is precious. That’s why I scream and shout because I don’t know what will happen tomorrow and I want to celebrate at the moment for all its worth. I don’t care if it looks embarrassing or whatever. Life really is precious and you’ve got to celebrate it because you just don’t know.’’
No, you do not.
“It was a long, hellish year (after the diagnosis) and this horse means the world to us,’’ Newell said. “(Cancer) was not in our family, came out of nowhere and you start to hang on for straws. Then, this beautiful little filly came along and she’s just been everything. It’s a really wonderful story.’’
It is indeed.
Newell, like so many in the Commonwealth, became attracted to the sport in 2004 because of Smarty Jones.
He was in the Little Red Feather partnership when they had horses in Pennsylvania with trainer John Servis. Later, he had a piece of MarchFore Thoroughbreds’ Adirondack King during that horse’s 46-race career that began in 2011 and ended in 2017 with 7 wins, 10 seconds, 7 thirds, and earnings of $578,554. The gelding was also trained by Servis. As is Precious has five wins and earnings of $252,020. Newell expects her to run in the Sept. 25 Plum Pretty Stakes on the Pennsylvania Derby undercard.“I’m here to run,’’ Newell said. “We’re not going to the breeding shed. We can wait three more years for all I care. I breed to race.’’
That Precious won on Pa. Day was just about perfect.
“It’s part of the whole message that even the small people (can succeed),’’ said Newell, putting on his PHBA hat. “Listen, I’ve only got a couple of mares. But you have a chance in the Pa. breeding program to have a successful day and have a big win and you don’t always have to go to the highest stallions and so forth and you can trust your own mare and so for me to then send a message to everybody else: listen I’m only here because of the Pa. program, no other reason am I here today except for that.’’
And he is not going anywhere. His engineering firm, Nave Newell, is based in Wayne. Right out of college, he was the design engineer when a turf course was installed about the time Keystone was being renamed Philadelphia Park in 1985. He rides horses every day. He has pieces of a few other runners, some mares and yearlings.
So how did he end up as president of the PHBA?
“I say that I’m pretty lousy at musical chairs,’’ Newell said.
He wasn’t really the only one standing when the music stopped. He was interested.
He became friends with PHBA executive secretary Brian Sanfrantello, who asked him to be on the board.
“I’m just a person if I’m going to be involved, I’m going to be involved,’’ Newell said.
So he got involved and then became president. His business lends itself to interactions with state legislators. So, he was ready for that part of the job.
“I’m just willing to talk to people,’’ Newell said.
And he is willing to celebrate so that everybody notices which make him the perfect horse racing ambassador in all his roles.
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.’’
It took a week longer than planned, but, in the end, the horse that would have been heavily favored on Aug. 24 was heavily favored in the Aug. 31 Grade III $200,000 Parx Dash. The Critical Way did not exactly win like a 1-5 shot, just getting my second choice Francatelli late and holding off a serious final charge by 9-1 Battle Station to win by a nose.
They don’t pay for margins. They do pay for winning. And that is what The Critical Way does best. Even though the 5-furlong grass race had to be postponed for a week after drenching rains left the course too soft to run on, the wait was no issue for The Critical Way.
After breaking his maiden at 45-1 in May 2017 at Santa Anita, the Pennsylvania bred came east to win the Danzig Stakes at Penn National. Since then, The Critical Way has raced all over, but it was Jan. 15, 2020 that changed everything. Owner Randal Gindi of Monster Racing Stables put up $30,000 to claim The Critical Way at Gulfstream Park. Since then, in 12 races for the owner, The Critical Way, now 7-years-old, has six wins, four seconds, two thirds, and earnings of $394,565.
“I took a $30,000 shot,’’ Gindi said.
“To win it here… he’s a Pennsylvania bred,’’ Gindi said. “It’s just so exciting to be in this position.’’
It was the first graded stakes win for trainer Jose Delgado. It was not the first big win for jockey Paco Lopez who, in his 15 years riding, has won 3,136 races. His mounts have earned $112 million.
“He tries hard every time,’’ Lopez said of The Critical Way. “He’s a very good horse.’’
Such a good horse that he won despite the course not being hard and tight like he prefers.
“I waited and when I asked, he gave me everything in the stretch,’’ Lopez said.
One of the gelding’s 10-lifetime wins came in last year’s Marshall Jenney on Labor Day at Parx when The Critical Way was 11-1. Two years earlier, the horse finished fourth in the same race as the 9-5 favorite. The plan is to bring The Critical Way (stabled at Monmouth Park) back for the Grade III $300,000 Turf Monster on Sept. 25, Pennsylvania Derby Day. Only makes sense for a horse owned by the Monster Racing Stables.
“I was just looking last year at the (Jenney),’’ Delgado said. “We came to the (Jenney) and he crushed the field…I think he loves this track.’’
After the return visit to Parx, up next could be the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Del Mar on Nov. 6.
“That would be a dream come true and that would be my goal,’’ Gindi said.
BOBBY VELEZ PASSES AWAY
He was a fixture on the backstretch in the mornings. During the races, you would usually see him perched on a bench not far from the paddock and walking ring. It will not be the same at Parx without Bobby Velez who recently passed away.
“Bobby was family to me and my family,’’ said trainer John Servis. “My kids grew up with him. (Velez) and Big Bill (Foster), they were two guys my kids looked up to. Bobby started with me right before Smarty Jones.’’
Foster and Velez were fixtures around Smarty that spring and summer of 2004 when Smarty ran his way into horse racing history. We lost Bill a few years ago. Now, Bobby.
“He worked for me for 10 plus years, went home to Puerto Rico for maybe a year and a half and went to work for my son (trainer Tyler Servis) and worked for my son right up until he died, Servis said.’’
Velez was the assistant trainer for Budd Lepman when the trainer sent Eillo to Hollywood Park in 1984 to win the first Breeders’ Cup Sprint. He was the exercise rider for the great Spend A Buck when the colt won the 1985 Kentucky Derby and Jersey Derby on his way to Horse of the Year. Then came his time with Smarty.
“Bobby was quiet, paid attention to detail,’’ Servis said. “He grew up around horses. That’s why I was (so happy) when he came back to go to work for Tyler. I’m sure Tyler learned a lot from him.’’ From Eillo to Spend A Buck to Smarty Jones, Bobby Velez was around some great horses and those horses were around a great man.