A GLORIOUS MEMORIAL DAY AT PARX

By Dick Jerardi

It was the first non-weekday/holiday, no mask live a racing day at Parx Racing in more than a year. The picnic tables were jammed; the lines for food and drink long, the weather perfect on Memorial Day.

It just felt right and seemed quite an appropriate day to celebrate the best of Parx 2020, a very trying year that has given way to hope as we head for summer 2021 and the big races that come to the track in late August and September, culminating with the Sept. 25 Pennsylvania Derby and Cotillion.

So while we contemplate what’s next, looking back at 2020 gave everybody a chance to marvel at the incredible year of trainer Jamie Ness. Champions in various categories were announced after each of the first 10 races. Ness visited the winner’s circle for the various presentations after the second, third, seventh and 10th races. He was the trainer of 3-year-old filly champion Madam Meena as well as older male Flat Out Beautiful and older female champions It’s A Journey. He was also the trainer of the year and Madam Meena was voted 2020 Parx Horse of the Year.

“It was a rough year with Covid, but obviously, we made it work,’’ Ness said. “Our horses ran well. It was trying. We had three months off. Luckily, we came out ready to run and the horses all performed. The owners were good. It was just that everything went right after the Covid (100-day shutdown) and  we’re continuing on now.’’

Ness ended the year with 109 wins at Parx, Madam Meena, owned by Michael Cox, the headliner. The filly raced 12 times in 2020 with 7 wins, 2 seconds and 2 thirds, She earned $221,740.

What made her so good?

“She’s very fast,’’ Ness said succinctly. “What made her so good is I was very aggressive with her early. I ran her for maiden 25 ($25,000) so that opened up a lot of conditions for her…I used all her conditions and hence her seven wins and she got better every time too. When we went through all the conditions, she still was probably the best filly here after all that.’’

Ness has been training horses since 1999. His three wins on Memorial Day (two at Parx, one at Delaware Park) brought his total to 3,298. As good as his 2020 was, speaking for many, he was most thankful just for the chance to participate.

“In 2020, I appreciated (the game),’’ Ness said. “We were gone for three months. Nobody knew what was going on. Our future was, nobody knew and I can’t wait to go out, saddle my horse. I don’t care if (the horse) runs bad, just to get back to the races and come back to the people at the track. This is the greatest place to be right here and I missed that and an I appreciate it more now.’’

Other horse category winners included Kidnapped (2-year-old male), Aegean Sea (2-year-old female), Dreams Untold (3-year-old maile), outstanding claim (Admiral Abe), claiming horse, and winningest horse (Salsita Roja).

Jagger Inc. was the top owner, Bobby Mosco leading “B’’ trainer, Mychel Sanchez top jockey, and Gerardo Milan leading apprentice.

Vequist, the Eclipse Award winner as a 2-year-old filly champion with not enough local starts to qualify for a Parx award, was given a special achievement award.

Joe Hampshire won 18 riding titles, nine at Suffolk Downs and nine at Rockingham Parx. The South Philly native rode very well at Parx for many years but never won a title at the track so being Sanchez’s agent made the 2020 jockeys’ title especially meaningful.

“It was a real big deal for Mychel,’’ Hampshire said. “We worked very hard for 4 or 5 years before we got there, but it was well worth it. It’s a beautiful day and everybody’s happy.’’

Indeed they were. It was Memorial Day 2021, with 2020 a bit farther in the rearview mirror, hopefully much more sunshine ahead.

THE PERFECT CHUB WAGON

By Dick Jerardi

Lupe Preciado has started more than 12,000 horses. The Parx Hall of Fame trainer has won more than 2,000 races. The filly that got win No. 2,000 for him on Nov. 16, 2020 at Parx has done something none of his nine graded stakes winners ever did, something none of his horses ever accomplished.

Pennsylvania-bred Chub Wagon, by $1,000 New Jersey-bred sire Hey Chub out an unraced New Jersey bred mare, has begun her career with six consecutive wins. And she did not just win those races. She dominated, winning by a combined 34 lengths.

All of which has her trainer dreaming big dreams. It is a long way until November and the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at Del Mar, but that is a goal. When Preciado took his best horse, $1 million earner Favorite Tale, to the 2015 BC Sprint at Keeneland, the horse outran his odds and finished a strong third behind the great Runhappy.

Favorite Tale ran so well despite a whatever-could-go-wrong wrong-did-go-wrong runup to the race, none of which was Preciado’s fault. There was a quarantine at Parx so the horse became a bit of gypsy trying to find a place to train; the van broke down on the way to Kentucky and Favorite Tale drew the outside post. Despite all that, Preciado had the horse ready to run the race of his life.

A Parx-based horse has won a BC race each of the last three years. Could Chub Wagon make it four?

“That would be nice,’’ Preciado said

Next up is the July 3 Princess Rooney Stakes at Gulfstream Park, a 7-furlong, Grade II race worth $250,000. It is a “win and you’re in’’ for the BC. Even if Chub Wagon wins and gets entry and starter fees paid as well as a $10,000 travel allowance, there would still be substantial nomination fees involved as neither she nor her sire is BC nominated. But if she keeps winning, the purse earnings could pay her way to California.

After just those six starts, four since March 2, Chub Wagon is already one of 20 horses trained by Preciado that has won more than $200,000. The 4-year-old filly has earned $227,800.

 “We’re going to give her a little time before her next race,’’ Preciado said. “After (the Princess Rooney), we might look at a Pa. Bred race, something easier.’’

Chub Wagon’s sire, Hey Chub, was a really tough horse who raced much of his career at Monmouth Park, going 7-16-7 from 36 starts, with $441,755 in earnings.

After her impressive win in the $100,000 Skipat Stakes at Pimlico on Preakness Day, Chub Wagon’s owners/breeders Danny Lopez and George Chestnut have been getting a lot of offers.

“They’re trying to steal her,’’ Preciado said.

So far, the offers have been underwhelming.

If Chub Wagon wins the Princess Rooney, the price will go up, way up.

SEVEN YEARS LATER, A PREAKNESS WIN

By Dick Jerardi

It was the Monday before the 2014 Kentucky Derby. I was having dinner at Proof on Main in Louisville with several of my writer friends when I got a call from Mark Reid. One of his main clients, owner Bill Warren, was interested in sending some horses to the west coast and needed a trainer.

It was Reid who managed  Saint Liam for Warren in 2005 when the horse won the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Horse of the Year. Warren was looking for another big horse.

I asked my friend Jay Privman of the “Daily Racing Form’’ if he had any recommendations. There was this longtime assistant to Todd Pletcher who was just starting out on his own with a west coast stable. Privman said he thought he would be good if he could get some good horses.

Reid made the call and the trainer was hired. Fast forward seven years to last Saturday and there was that trainer, after sending out his first horse in a Triple Crown race, standing in the Pimlico infield winner’s circle, the one used only once a year, just for the Preakness winner.

Michael McCarthy was overcome with emotion. He had won the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, the 2019 Pegasus World Cup, and two other Grade I stakes with the City of Light, a horse purchased at the 2015 Keeneland Yearling Sale for Warren by Reid’s Walnut Green, a horse that cost $710,000 and won $5.6 million. McCarthy had won the Grade I Apple Blossom with Ce Ce. His stable was closing on $20 million in lifetime earnings. But this was different. This was the Preakness.

Rombauer was 11-1 in the Preakness. The colt, a homebred owned by John and Diane Fradkin, had one win on dirt and one on grass. The son of Twirling Candy was 0-for-3 on dirt. But, on this day, the colt., ridden by the wondrous Flavien Prat, was brilliant, blowing by frontrunning Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit and the solid Midnight Bourbon in the stretch to win decisively.

The colt was ready for the moment. So was the trainer.

BIG DAY FOR PARX AT PIMLICO

Undefeated for an extending period in horse racing is close to impossible. Something will go wrong.

When Chub Wagon was beaten to the lead for the first time in her career, you wondered if the 4-year-old filly might lose for the first time. The question of what she would do if not in front was asked and answered in the $100,000 Skipat Stakes, the ninth race on the 14-race Preakness Day card.

Chub Wagon would stretch her record to 6-for-6, winning by a comfortable 2 lengths. The Pennsylvania bred daughter of Hey Chub has won her six starts by a combined 34 lengths. She has won four times at Parx, including the April 27 state-bred Unique Bella Stakes. She has won at Aqueduct and now at Pimlico.

Trained by Parx Hall of Famer Lupe Preciado at Parx and owned by breeders Danny Lopez and George Chestnut, Chub Wagon proved that she is a rare talent, not just a horse that needs things to go her way.

Seeing what is next and just what she might be capable of will be fascinating to watch as we head for summer and even more important races.

Prediado was not the only Parx trainer to win a $100,000 stakes on the Preakness card.

The Bob Baffert-trained Hozier was odds-on to win the Sir Barton Stakes, the first race on the card. And when the colt slipped through on a very live rail to challenge Jamie Ness-trained The King Cheek, it looked like it was Hozier’s race.

But King Cheek, who had never raced around two turns, refused to give in. And just before the wire, the New York-bred, who is stabled at Parx, took back the lead he had given up and got the win. Anybody who has followed Ness’s year-long hot streak should not have been surprised. The top trainer at Parx in 2020 and runaway leader in 2021 just finds ways to get horses into winner’s circles wherever they are.

And congratulations to Bensalem native and “Let’s Go Racing’’ alum Trish Bowman, now the stakes coordinator at Laurel Park and Pimlico. She put together all the stakes that anchored Black-Eyed Susan Day and Preakness Day. The betting public liked the cards so much that, despite attendance being limited to 10,000 each day, handle records were sent both days, with $27 million bets on Friday and $112 million Saturday.

MEDINA SPIRIT’S DERBY WIN IN JEOPARDY

By Dick Jerardi

Been doing a radio show every Saturday morning (9-11, iHeartRadio app) from outside the Sports Book at the Parx Casino. We talked about college basketball throughout the NCAA Tournament. Lately, there has, naturally, been a lot of horse racing discussion. Had trainer Todd Pletcher on the week before the Kentucky Derby, NBC Sports racing analyst Randy Moss Derby Day, and, last Saturday, for 15 minutes, Bob Baffert joined the show. He was still filled with joy over his record seventh Derby win, oblivious to the tsunami that was heading his way.

It was 7 a.m. on the west coast where Baffert was. Just a couple hours later, while he was on the way to the airport to catch a flight east, he was told by assistant Jimmy Barnes that Derby winner Medina Spirit had tested positive for a therapeutic drug (betamethasone) that is legal to use in training but can’t be in a horse’s system on race day.

That night, word started to leak about a positive test that, if confirmed, would eventually result in Medina Spirit’s Derby win being invalidated. The next morning, now back at Churchill Downs, Baffert confirmed the positive in a press conference before saying: “Medina Spirit has never been treated with betamethasone.’’

That was weird. Then, it got weirder.

After two days of trying to figure out what went on, Baffert explained that Medina Spirit had been treated daily with an anti-fungal ointment (otomax) for a skin condition that developed after the Santa Anita Derby. One of the substances in otomax is, you guessed it, betamethasone. Which likely explains the positive finding.

If this had happened in a vacuum without a positive for the same medication (Gamine after the 2020 Kentucky Oaks) and two lidocaine positives from Arkansas Derby Day in 2020, Baffert may have gotten the benefit of the doubt. But they happened and the howling began.

Betamethasone is an anti-inflammatory that is termed a Class 4-C drug by the ARCI (Association of Racing Commissioners International), with 1 being a drug most likely to affect a horse’s performance and 5 being the least likely. The C refers to the recommended penalty. In this case, if a test on a split sample confirms the original finding and because this would be Baffert’s second such betamethasone positive within 365 days, the penalty is a minimum fine of $1,500 and a 15-day suspension. Most importantly, Medina Spirit would be disqualified from his Derby win and second-place Mandaloun declared the winner.

Last year, when Gamine tested positive, Baffert admitted she had been given betamethasone. He just thought it would have been out of her system by the time she ran third in the Ky. Oaks. This time, he says Medina Spirit never got the drug. Well, it turns out the horse did sort of getting it, but not through injection which is the normal method.

It never made much sense that a trainer would use betamethasone so close to a race as it is easily detectable in a post-race test. Again, this is a therapeutic medication, not some heavy-duty pain killer or performance enhancer that would be termed a Class 1 drug. The distinction, however, is mostly lost on the general public which will just see “Derby winner tested positive.’’ There is no space for nuance in 2021.

Baffert wondered aloud about tests that are so sensitive that they can pick up minute traces of certain drugs. It is a reasonable question, but it is also reasonable to ask why, among the top trainers, it just seems to be happening to him.

“Why is it happening to me?’’ Baffert wondered. “There’s problems in racing, but it’s not Bob Baffert.’’

Churchill Downs reacted to the news of the positive test by saying it would not accept Baffert’s entries. Officials at Pimlico where the Preakness is scheduled to be run this Saturday considered the issue and then decided to take Medina Spirit’s entry, with the proviso that the colt undergo a pre-race test to make sure the betamethasone has cleared his system. So, assuming that happens, Medina Spirit will face nine rivals in the Preakness.

Regardless of what anybody thinks about any of this, due process should matter. Medina Spirit is still the Derby winner unless and until a split sample is also determined to be positive for betamethasone. Then, a hearing will be held.

The bottom line is that this is a terrible look for Baffert and the game. When your sport’s most recognizable figure is in the news for all the wrong reasons, it is not helpful.

“The last thing I want to do is something that would jeopardize the greatest two minutes in sports,’’ Baffert said Sunday.

If it was in fact one of the properties in the ointment that caused the positive test, it was a colossal blunder by Baffert’s barn as betamethasone is right on the otomax label. Meanwhile, it would probably be best for everybody to await the split sample result and the hearing where evidence can be introduced, explanations given and judgment rendered.