Keith Jones

Dick Jerardi is an award winning sports writer as well as a radio/television host and commentator, and is arguably best known for covering the sport of Horse Racing.

Though his work as a journalist at The Philadelphia Daily News, Dick has covered every Triple Crown race since 1987 (he is a five-time winner of theRed Smith Award for Kentucky Derby coverage). Dick Jerardi famously chronicled the remarkable Smarty Jones during the Triple Crown chase of 2004 s the Thoroughbred won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes for trainer John Servis.

Since 2011 Jerardi has been an on-air analyst for the live television broadcasts of The Pennsylvania Derby from Parx Racing, most recently for NBC Spots Philadelphia.

Many fans know of Dick Jerardi’s work from the long running Let’s Go Racing TV program where he works alongside fellow Parx Hall of Fame members Keith Jones and producer Bruce Casella.

Dick also continues to provide color commentary for the live broadcasts of Penn State basketball.


NEW APPRENTICE GOMEZ MAKING A TERRIFIC IMPRESSION AT PARX 

By Dick Jerardi

Jose Antonio Gomez, 21, was born into a horse racing family, his mother a groom, his father an exercise rider/jockey.

“I was born in Michigan,” Gomez said. “My parents were race track people, moved around a bit. I was not even in school yet, we moved here near Penn National in Lebanon County. I was there most of the time growing up.”

He moved to Ocala, Fla to break babies when he was 16 or 17. He graduated high school, went to gallop horses at Arlington Park where “I wasn’t ready yet so they fired me.” He went back to Ocala and got better.

“I knew what I wanted to do,” he said.

He wanted to ride race horses.

“From a little kid, I always loved it,” he said.

Gomez is now a 7-lb. Apprentice, splitting time between Parx and Aqueduct. He rode his first race last June at Monmouth Park, had his first winner in October at Belmont Park and already has 33 winners, 32 in 2022, after going 1-for-26 over seven months in 2021.

Gomez hooked up with trainer Kelly Breen last summer at Monmouth, found out he was riding for the first time when he saw the overnight.

“Once the doors open, the nerves go away,” Gomez said of that first ride.

Gomez broke his arm in January 2021. He needed surgery and was out for three months. Then, he went to Monmouth and began to work with Breen’s stable.

“He put me on a couple of horses,” Gomez said. And then he saw that overnight.

“I said ‘let’s go,'” Gomez said.

Breen put him on a few horses per month just to get him experience.

“From there, he asked me if I wanted to go to New York, said I’ve got an agent for you,” Gomez said. “I said ‘let’s go.'” 

 His agent at Parx is Bobby Martel who is no stranger to top jockeys.

His agent in New York is the legendary Angel Cordero, one of the great jockeys in history (7,057 wins, ninth all-time) who guided Hall of Famer John Velazquez through much of his career.

“He’s been teaching me a lot of things,” Gomez said. “I learn a lot just watching his old videos of his races. That’s been my journey.”

 He lives in New York and rides at Aqueduct on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. He rides at Parx Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays.

 “I just go back and forth, try to make the most of it,” Gomez said.

 The results are proving that he is doing exactly that. Gomez has ridden in just 28 races. If he’s winning this much already, the future looks quite bright indeed.

SEVEN WEEKS TO THE DERBY

           

By Dick Jerardi

When the brackets appear for the NCAA Tournament, that can mean only one thing: it is less than 8 weeks until the May 7 Kentucky Derby.

This has been an especially bizarre prep season because Bob Baffert-trained horses are winning or running well in many of the preps, but none are technically Derby contenders. Baffert is in court trying to get a stay of his 90-day Kentucky suspension and trying to overturn a separate two-year ban from running horses at any Churchill Downs tracks. He is running out of time so I will just be focusing on the non-Baffert horses unless the courts rule in his favor twice.

Steve Asmussen has won every significant horse race in the world – except one. He is Dale Earnhardt without the Daytona 500. Perhaps, this is the year he finally wins the Kentucky Derby like Dale finally won Daytona.

Risen Star winner Epicenter is very talented and may finally be the one for Asmussen. We will know more after his final prep race.

In fact, that is true of all the contenders as we are just a few weeks from the final major preps – Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass, Wood Memorial. Some horses that look like contenders now won’t make the final cut. Others may yet emerge. Pay close attention to everything.

In addition to Asmussen, there are several prominent trainers with serious contenders that have never won the Derby. Richard Mandella has the very talented San Felipe winner Forbidden Kingdom. Like a few of the other contenders, Forbidden Kingdom is all speed.

Kenny McPeek has won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, but not the Derby. In his 2022 debut, Smile Happy was a solid second to Epicenter in the Risen Star. This horse is very much a major contender if he gives a big effort in his final prep.

Trainer Chad Brown is known for his grass horses, but he is increasingly concentrating on 3-year-old dirt horses. So it’s just a question of when he wins his first Derby. Early Voting and Zandon need breakthrough preps to be major contenders, but each is getting better and could be ready for a top performance on the first Saturday in May.

The Florida prep winners, White Abarrio (Holy Bull) and Simplification (Fountain of Youth) ran fast and true. I make each of them very serious contenders at this stage. In Due Time, second in the Fountain of Youth, came with the kind of late run that suggests he is not far away from the best.

Mo Donegal certainly appears to have the ability to give Todd Pletcher his third Derby, but he missed the Fountain of Youth and is playing catch up, never a good thing at this time of year.

Hard to think of the Gotham as a serious Derby prep anymore, but Morello was so impressive and ran so fast winning it, you can’t dismiss the horse’s chances either.

Tampa Bay Derby winner Classic Causeway is yet another speed horse who wins his races up top. Which suggests there might be an interesting and perhaps quick Derby early pace. But keep in mind that what looks like a lot of speed often is not as jockeys have a tendency to ride more cautiously in the Derby. It’s an annual mistake, but it keeps happening. Regardless, don’t see Classic Causeway as a serious contender as the horse has not hit 90 on the Beyer scale yet. And if a horse has not gotten past that milestone by mid-March, it’s usually too late.

So that’s where we are, with the second round of preps in the rearview mirror and the final round coming up quickly on the road to the 2022 Kentucky Derby.

PARX MADNESS

By Dick Jerardi

It was the full week of March so what better time for “Parx Madness?’’

Seven $100,000 stakes Monday and Tuesday named after local landmarks, starter allowances honoring local colleges and with a number of prominent basketball coaches, players and graduates as trophy presenters on Wednesday.

Perfect weather Monday, a bit chilly on Tuesday, rainy and cold Wednesday.

The three stakes Monday went off perfectly. After a backstretch quarantine was announced, 17 of the 37 horses in the four Tuesday stakes were scratched because, once on the grounds, horses were not able to leave until the problems that caused the quarantine can be isolated. Good races Wednesday and a record $505,292.94 Philly Big 5 carryover jackpot that was sure to attract major play because of a mandatory distribution, attracted $2,527,400 in handle, making the three-day total handle just more than $12 million.

Parx Madness indeed.

The seven stakes were won by seven different trainers and seven different jockeys.

First up on Monday was The Washington Crossing for 4-year-olds and up going 1 mile and 70 yards.

It was kind of a bad deja vu for Smarty Jones fans when 8-5 favorite Dreams Untold, a son of Smarty owned by Pat Chapman and trained by John Servis, survived a speed duel, took the lead in the stretch and was run down by 5-2 Bird King, bred by Mary Lou Whitney who owned Birdstone the horse that caught Smarty Jones in the final yards of the 2004 Belmont Stakes.

“He was coming into the race real good,” Bird King’s trainer Michael Pino said. “He’s always a hard luck horse getting a check  in some tough races. We figured we’d try him in this race and he got a great trip. It all worked out in our favor.”

Bird King is owned by Gregory Carlevale and was ridden perfectly by Angel Castillo in The Washington Crossing.

The 6 1/2-furlong Penn’s Landing (4 and up fillies and mares)  was dominated start to finish by 5-1 Hey Mamaluke. The mare took the lead under apprentice Andy Hernandez and was never in any danger of losing even when drifting out late. Jakarta, who won the $100,000 Mrs. Claus at Parx on Dec. 28 at 18-1, was 3-5 this time. She could not keep up with Hey Mamaluke early and came on very late to be second, running her career earnings over a half million.

“She got an easy lead, that was good, nobody was pressuring her,” Hey Mamaluke’s trainer Pat Farro said. “And she’s fast. She got out there in front and I knew she’d hang in there as long as she could.”

It was the first stakes winner for Hernandez.

“That was incredible for me,” he said. “That’s my first stake.”

Joseph Capriglione owns Hey Mamaluke who is closing on a half million in earnings herself.

Speed killed again in The Fishtown, run at 6 furlongs for 4 and up. Hollywood Jet blasted out of the gate at 7-5, made the lead, fought off multiple challenges and held on for jockey Luis Ocasio and owner/trainer Carlos Milian. It was the gelding’s fifth straight win.

“This horse is very honest, always tries his best,” Milian said.

The Main Line, run at a mile and 70 yards for 3-year-old fillies, was the first of the Tuesday stakes and looked like a one-filly race on paper. It played out exactly that way as 1-10 Butch-Reid trained Morning Matcha, sat behind her three rivals early, responded in an instant when jockey Frankie Pennington gave the signal, inhaled the field and won by 6 3/4 dominating lengths.

“She’s been a cash cow ever since we bought her,” Reid said. “We bought her relatively inexpensively, only $18,000. And she’s never been worse than third in her career and that’s her third win. She’s been a great find.”

Morning Matcha has already won more than $325,000. She’s been second in three other stakes. Her connections, Glenn Bennett’s LC Racing, Chuck Zacney’s Cash is King and Gary Barber, are going to try her in another stake soon and, only if she fits, perhaps consider a race like the Kentucky Oaks.

Instead of speed winning, a wild speed duel set up the winner of The Society Hill. Disco Ebo (4-5) and Starship Laoban (6-5) tore out of the gate and into each other in the 6-furlong race for 3-year-old fillies. They battled through fractions of :22.16 and :45.76. Disco Ebo gave way first, but Starship Laoban was still there in the final 100 yards.

But Dylan Davis had brought Kisses for Emily through on the rail before switching outside for the stretch run. When Starship Laoban finally started to tire, Kisses for Emily went right on by to win it for trainer Lou Linder and owners Branjam Stable and Dave Clark.

“Just a perfect trip for her with a lot of pace,” Linder said. “And Dylan knows her, goes to let her settle, she starts picking up and she got to them. With the hot pace, it paid off.”

Davis came in from New York for the ride and could not have timed it much better.

“There was a hot pace in front of me which I liked,” he said. “I just rode the rail as long as I could and then was able to tip out and she was able to keep her momentum all the way to the wire.”

Dance Code was the 2-1 favorite in The Rittenhouse Square for 3-year-olds going 6 furlongs. But he never really fired and had to settle for fourth.

Scaramouche, for trainer Lupe Preciado, got a great start under jockey Silvestre Gonzalez and won off by 5 ½ lengths. The gelding, owned by Nicholas Cammarano, Jr., won his previous start by 5 lengths and looks to have a very promising future.

“I rode him last time out to break his maiden,” Gonzalez said. “He broke very sharp and I just let him get comfortable on the lead and he gave me a kick down the stretch…I knew if we were in front, we could dictate the pace. He finished up great today.”

The final stakes race of the two days may have had only three horses, but it was by far the most exciting of the seven races.

Twisted Ride, under Ruben Silvera, quickly jumped to the lead in The City of Brotherly Love run at a mile and a sixteenth for 3-year-olds. But Smarten Up was always just to his inside, with 3-5 Courvoisier just in behind.

Twisted ride and Smarten Up hooked up on the far turn and ran as one from there to the finish line. The favorite could not keep up.

It was Smarten Up on the inside, trained by Freddy Velazquez and Twisted Ride on the outside, trained by Kate DeMasi, each Parx Hall of Famers. Twisted Ride was always slightly in front, but, at no time, was Smarten Up not in with a real chance. In the end, it was Twisted Ride, in just his third third career race, winning it by a nose. It was a wonderful race from two very talented horses.

“He was pricking his ears down the backside so I knew Ruben had plenty of horse,” DeMasi said. “This horse is really learning, but he showed me a lot of gumption today….I was so proud of his effort. He just kept digging in. I just loved what I saw today.”

On Wednesday, Big 5 Hall of Famers Mike Vreeswyk and Howie Evans (Temple), Speedy Morris (La Salle) and Harry Perretta (Villanova) were among the trophy presenters who attended a luncheon in the Cotillion Room, along with many PTHA board members. It was a wonderful time for all and a perfect ending to a terrific racing week, the first “Parx Madness” of what hopefully will be many more to follow.

THE MEDINA SPIRIT KENTUCKY DERBY DISQUALIFICATION

By Dick Jerardi

The Kentucky stewards Feb. 21 ruling was clinical. It read: “sample No. E427258, taken from Medina Spirit who finished first in the 12th race at Churchill Downs on May 1, 2021, contained betamethasone in the blood (Class C drug) (fourth medication violation in 365 days in any racing jurisdiction.’’

That 12th race, of course, was the Kentucky Derby. So this was no ordinary positive test.

The stewards ruled that Medina Spirit’s trainer Bob Baffert be suspended for 90 days (March 9-June 5) and fined $7,500 and that Medina Spirit be disqualified and all purse money forfeited.

So there it was, nearly 300 days after Baffert himself announced that he had been notified of the positive test for an overage of the anti-inflammatory, Mandaloun is now being recognized by Churchill Downs as the official winner of the Kentucky Derby, with Hot Rod Charlie second and  Essential Quality third.

There is that and there is what happens next. All of this will be appealed and almost certainly will end up in court. While Baffert is appealing his suspension, he can still train and run horses, assuming he gets a stay which is typical in these cases. Medina Spirit’s owner will also appeal his horse’s DQ.

Not sure how long all this will take, but after Derby winner Dancer’s Image was DQ’d in 1968 for having then illegal (long since legal) Bute in his system, those legal appeals took four years until Forward Pass was, once and for all, declared the official Derby winner.

So, what do I think? Frankly, I am not sure what to think.

I understand the stewards’ decision. The rules in Kentucky state that no amount of betamethasone can be in a horse’s system on race day. (It is legal for a horse to have it in his system during training).

I also understand there is some nuance here, as Baffert’s attorney Clark Brewster pointed out in his statement after the ruling, saying that, in his opinion, the Kentucky rules only consider betamethasone illegal if it is administered into a horse’s joint, saying that Medina Spirit was treated with an ointment, not an injection.

That was Baffert’s argument in a hearing a week before the decision. The stewards’ obviously disagreed.

After initially saying Medina Spirit was never treated with betamethasone last May, Baffert then said he did not realize the drug was an ingredient in Otomax, an ointment they were using to treat a skin condition in the weeks leading up to the Derby.

Baffert’s attorneys eventually got a leftover sample from Medina Spirit and had it tested in New York. The result of those tests, they said, proved it was the ointment, not an injectable, that led to the positive test.

In his statement, Brewster said: “Median Spirit was treated with an ointment, not an injection. The trace amount of betamethasone could not have affected the horse in any way and the trace amount of betamethasone could not possibly have affected the outcome of the race.’’

What Brewster’s statement said there is obviously critical and is the ultimate question for me: did the presence of betamethasone help Medina Spirit win the race? To this point, I have not seen any evidence that it did.

Unlike many, I absolutely think Baffert has every right to due process here. If he thinks he has been wronged, he should be able to appeal. I also understand the people who are upset with him and are convinced he has been doing something illegal all along. I don’t see the proof of that, but I do understand the sentiment.

One obvious unanswered question: why was Medina Spirit treated with Otomax if one of its ingredients could not be in the horse’s system on race day?  Did the vet not think it would show up in a test? It would be interesting to hear the answer.

Regardless of how this plays out, it all makes the sport look bad. Do I think Baffert is Lance Armstrong? No, I do not. But, in our society these days, we don’t do nuance. The public just sees: Derby winner tests positive and that’s it.

So, here we are. Baffert’s record seventh Derby winner has been disqualified. Churchill Downs, Inc., separate from the official rulings, has banned Baffert from running horses at its tracks for two years.

Assuming he gets the stay and nothing has been decided by the third Saturday of May, Baffert will be able to run horses in the Preakness at Pimlico. The New York Racing Association is also trying to ban him from its tracks. That situation is unresolved so it’s unclear if Baffert will be able to run horses in the Belmont Stakes.  So, to review, Medina Spirit has been DQ’d from the Derby and Baffert has been suspended. Yet, this saga, nearly 10 months after it began, is nowhere near over.

A NIGHT OF EXCELLENCE

By Dick Jerardi

The wind had been swirling in the afternoon. There were snow squalls. It was below freezing.

Inside at Celebrations in Bensalem on Saturday night, however, there was a celebration two years in the making after last year’s Horsemen’s Awards Banquet was not held due to the pandemic. This was a night to celebrate the horses and people that made 2021 at Parx Racing so memorable.

The video tributes and Special Achievement awards for recently retired Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (PTHA) executive director Mike Ballezzi and PTHA office manager Connie Youmans led off the evening expertly hosted by Dani Gibson whose inspiring words set a wonderful tone.

“We live off these highs and the glimmer of hope for the next race because there’s nothing better than seeing your horse cross the wire first when it’s official and it’s even better when that check clears,’’ Gibson said. “So our awards tagline is `A Night of Excellence’ and excellence is what this past year has been at Parx.’’

PTHA President Sal DeBunda spoke from Florida where he is recovering from an upper respiratory infection. His heartfelt comments focused on what has been and what will be.

“The benefits that the members of the PTHA receive thanks to the members of our board (health care and pensions among others)…all of us should be thankful that we have those,’’ DeBunda said. “I also want to look forward to the new year and the years ahead…There are still matters to be resolved in our industry…but you can be assured that our board, our staff, and I are working very hard to not only deal with those issues but to make Parx Racing and the PTHA an even better and more vibrant organization than it has been.’’

New PTHA executive director Jeff Matty, who has absolutely hit the ground running, was eloquent and passionate in his remarks about the horsemen, the board, the PTHA staff, and the sport.

“We will continue to build at Parx on a colony of horsemen and horsewomen who put the horse first,’’ Matty said.

“’We must continue to fight for that and champion the belief and vision…There are many names in your program tonight that achieved the highest of highs on our local oval…Your successes are what we strive for and I applaud each and every one of you…This awards banquet is a culmination of not just a year’s worth of work, but many years and for some, a lifetime’s worth of work in this sport and this industry…We’re all in this race together, not just for the ups and downs, but for the journey along the way. So whether you’re taking home one trophy or two trophies or no trophies at all, here’s to working for that next start, that next race, the next time the gates open and anything is possible.’’

The last award of the night was also the least surprising. The brilliant, now 5-year-old mare Chub Wagon was an overwhelming choice for 2021 Horse of the Year. She was 8-for-9 with a second in 2021, winning six stakes and nearly $500,000.

“I knew she could run, but I didn’t know how good she could be,’’ said co-breeder and co-owner Danny Lopez.

Lopez has owned, bred, and trained some very good horses in his career. Chub Wagon, he said, is “No. 1.’’

Chub Wagon (also named top older female) has spent the winter at Patty Hogan’s Cream Ridge Farm in New Jersey and is due back at the barn of Parx Hall of Famer Lupe Preciado at the end of April or May. The connections are contemplating different 2022 racing plans for Chub Wagon. At some point, perhaps after this racing season or next, Lopez said the plan would be to sell Chub Wagon as a broodmare prospect.

Jamie Ness, who dominated the trainers’ standings for a second consecutive year, spent the most time getting his picture taken on the night, not unlike a race day at Parx. Ness had 186 winners from 554 starters at Parx in 2021, a cool 34 percent. The trainer was in the picture for his own award as well for those of his divisional winners – Thorny Tale (outstanding claim), Magic Michael (older male) – leading owner (Morris Kernan Jr, Yo Berbs, and Jagger, Inc who were responsible for 51 wins) and winningest horse (Sevier was 9-for-10 in 2021).

Ruben Silvera got out to a big early lead in the jockey’s race and never looked back, winning his first Parx title with 217 wins from 912 mounts. That he rode first call for Ness did not hurt.

Mario Dominguez (31 wins) was the leading “B’’ trainer

and Jonathan Ocasio (23 wins) was the top apprentice rider.

Trainer Butch Reid, who had the best year of his career and was elected to the Parx Hall of Fame in 2021, had two divisional winners – Disco Ebo (2-year-old filly) and Beren (3-year-old colt).

Dance Code (trainer Juan Vazquez) was the top 2-year-old male while the John Servis trained Leader of the Band was named best 3-year-old filly. Sweet Willemina, trained by Scott Lake, was the winner of the best claiming horse category.

The turnout at Celebrations was as spectacular as the performances by the humans and their horses had been in 2021. Now, we look forward to what is to come i 2022.

BEST OF THE BEST IN 2021

By Dick Jerardi

The most fascinating Eclipse Award decision was definitely going to be 3-year-old male, annually one of the two, along with Horse of the Year, marquee categories.

The voters had two great choices: Essential Quality or Medina Spirit. EQ won the Southwest, Blue Grass, Belmont, Jim Dandy, and the Travers while finishing fourth in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. MS won the Robert Lewis, the Kentucky Derby, the Shared Belief, and the Awesome Again while finishing second in the Sham, San Felipe, Santa Anita Derby, and Breeders’ Cup Classic as well as third in the Preakness.

I had real trouble making a decision but finally went with Medina Spirit because he won the Derby, the biggest race of all, and finished in front of Essential Quality that day and in the BC Classic.

Essential Quality ended up with 131 votes to Medina Spirit’s 84. The wonderful Life Is Good got 18 votes.

I have no problem with the result. Essential Quality is certainly a deserving champion. I was actually concerned the voting would be more one-sided which would not have been fair to the accomplishments of Medina Spirit.

Some, who revealed their ballots before the result was announced, clearly were not voting for Medina Spirit because of the betamethasone positive and/or their antipathy for trainer Bob Baffert. I did not consider the positive as it has not been adjudicated and, under any circumstance, I don’t think the Derby result had anything to do with betamethasone. And I certainly did not consider the Baffert issue. It was just about accomplishment.

I thought Medina Spirit was slightly more accomplished. More voters thought it was Essential Quality. Fair enough.

Horse of the Year was not close, as it should not have been. Knicks Go got 232 of 235 votes. My kind of horse – to the front and gone. And when all the best horses showed up at Del Mar for the Classic, none of them could keep up with Knicks Go.

Echo Zulu (2-year-old filly), Corniche (2-year-old male), Malathaat (3-year-old filly), Letruska (older female) and Knicks Go again (older male) each won with almost all of the votes.

Jackie’s Warrior won the Sprint Championship on the basis of his overall season, even though his worst race was in the BC Sprint. Jackie got 110 votes to 50 for BC Sprint winner Aloha West and 33 for the incredible Flightline. No doubt, Flightline is better than all of them, but he did not have the resume. I voted for Jackie’s Warrior.

Female Sprint champion was fairly close with BC Filly & Mare Sprint winner Ce Ce beating Gamine 136-97. I voted for Ce Ce.

I was a little surprised that Loves Only You won the female turf category. She got 136 votes to 70 for my selection War Like Goddess. Nothing against Loves Only You who had an awesome year, won the BC Filly & Mare Turf, and became the first Japanese bred to win an Eclipse Award. But she raced just once in North America while War Like Goddess ran all six of her races here. That obviously did not matter to the majority of voters.

Yibir, with his win in the BC Turf and another North American stakes win, got 135 votes to win the male grass championship. Domestic Spending and Space Blues each got 33 votes. I voted for Domestic Spending, but he only raced three times and Yibir did win the biggest race. Domestic Spending scratched two days before the BC Turf.

Joel Rosario deservedly won his first Eclipse Award as champion jockey in a runaway. He got 213 votes, including mine.

 I thought the champion trainer was a close call. The voters did not, giving it to Brad Cox 189-33 over Steve Asmussen. I was one of the 33.

Cox won 253 races with horse earnings of $31 million. Asmussen won 442 races with horse earnings of $30.5 million. Each had 10 Grade I winners and two champions (Knicks Go and Essential Quality for Cox, Jackie’s Warrior and Echo Zulu for Asmussen). Cox won 30 overall graded stakes to Asmussen’s 21.

Again, it seemed closer to me and I broke the tie because I thought it would be nice for Asmussen to get the award in the year he broke the all-time wins record.

Bottom line, 2021 was a fabulous year at the top of the sport, the Triple Crown races were run when they were supposed to be, the fans returned and we all got to see some sensational performances.

DONNY BROWN AND JUST ONE TIME HIT THE BIG TIME

By Dick Jerardi

Donny Brown had watched his horses in plenty of races, but nothing like a Grade II at Gulfstream Park on Pegasus Day, the final Saturday of January.

But there he was awaiting the Inside Information where he and his partners owned the favorite, 4-year-old Pennsylvania bred filly Just One Time.

It was definitely not like running at Presque Isle Downs or Penn National where Just One Time had run all of her races. She had won four of them, including two Pa. bred stakes, convincingly.

In fact, the filly was winning so big and running so fast that Todd Mosteller of Commonwealth New Era Racing offered to purchase a minority interest. A deal was made after her race at Penn in October. She was moved to the Brad Cox barn and had been training at the Fair Grounds prior to coming to South Florida.

“My nerves were bad all morning to begin with because it was my first graded stakes,’’ Brown said. “I spent some time on the phone with my partner Tom McClay just telling him my nerves were bad. He was like `you’ll be alright, get over there.’’’

So he went over there and Just One Time, who had been up with the pace in all her prior starts, reared in the gate and then broke poorly.

“I was like `oh, no,’’’ Brown said. “As the race developed, I was thinking we might be in trouble here. We knew she had talent. We knew she was a good horse.’’

They did not know, what nobody knew was how she would run when she was taken out of her comfort zone. In fact, after the race, Just One Time’s jockey Joel Rosario told Brown she was not doing well taking dirt in her face.

But Rosario took her wide, let her see air and she began to run, pleasing her jockey. She kept on running past all the horses in front of her to win the race.

“I wasn’t really happy until they crossed the finish line,’’ Brown said. “Not because I was worried about winning, but I just wanted her to show up and do a good job and be the horse we hoped she could be.’’

Just One Time was all that and more. If she was able to beat that field when she was taken completely out of her typical running style, there is no telling how good she might be.

The idea behind sending Just One Time to Cox was to get her into bigger races. Now, it’s on to the next big race, perhaps the $500,000 Grade I Madison at Keeneland on April 9, Blue Grass Stakes Day.

Brown and McClay stand Warrior’s Reward, a Grade I winning son of Medaglia D’Oro, at WynOaks Farm in York County, not far from the Maryland border and the Susquehanna River. Expect many of the stallions Pa. bred sons and daughters to race at Parx in coming years. Brown owns Black n Bleu restaurant (steaks, seafood, pasta) in Mechanicsburg, not too far from Harrisburg.  

Brown got back home from Florida two nights after the biggest win of his racing career and was “still on Cloud 9 two days later and the dream goes on.’’

When Brown was on the Gulfstream Park backstretch to see Just One Time before the race, the horse in the next stall just happened to be Knicks Go, the almost certain 2021 Horse of the Year.

In his final race before heading to stud, Knicks Go finished second in the Pegasus to Life Is Good. There will come a time when Just One Time will be in demand as a broodmare, but, for now, there are races to be won.

THE PEGASUS AND THE PENNSYLVANIA BREDS

By Dick Jerardi

It was the perfect Bucks County afternoon as the snow and the temperatures came down. Sit in front of the laptop and watch the races from Gulfstream Park, awaiting the showdown between the almost certain 2021 Horse of the Year and a prospective 2022 Horse of the Year. As an appetizer, we got a Grade II stake featuring two Pennsylvania bred fillies with immense talent. And before we got there, I got a one-word text from Dani Gibson – “WITTY!!!!!!’’

As in the Pa. bred gelding Witty who was so impressive winning the Dec. 7 $200,000 Pa. Nursery at Parx. Bred and owned by Lizzie Merryman and trained by her son McLane Hendricks, Witty won the Nursery by 5 ½ lengths under regular rider Carol Cedeno. Sitting midpack, the horse just exploded on the turn and powered away in the stretch.

Witty was 6-1 in Saturday’s Spectacular Bid at Laurel Park.  I was not watching the race because I was engrossed in the Gulfstream card, But when I watched the replay that night, it was just as Dani wrote: “Dusted them.’’

Just like in the race at Parx, Witty was a few lengths off the pace in midpack early in the 7-furlong race. And almost like a replay, Witty, off at 6-1, exploded on the turn, inhaled heavy favorite HP Moon, and ran away from the field in the stretch, winning by 7 3/4 lengths, earning an 81 Beyer speed figure.

The connections will have plenty of choices for Witty in 2022, but hard to imagine he would not be a heavy favorite in any of those 3-year-old Pa. bred races.

Just a half-hour after Witty proved a great advertisement for the Pa. bred program in Maryland, a 4-year-old filly and 7-year-old mare proved even a greater advertisement in the Grade II Inside Information at Gulfstream. 

Just One Time, the filly, was 4-for-5 at Presque Isle Downs and Penn National last spring, summer, and fall. Her last two races at Penn were so fast that she was purchased privately and turned over to trainer Brad Cox.

Making her first start for Cox and first, since Oct. 22, Just One Time was sent off as the 3-2 favorite in the $200,000 7-furlong race. The filly, under Joel Rosario, reared up in the gate not long before the start. Then, she did not break particularly well so instead of being near the lead as she had been in all of her starts, she was seventh early. No matter. She started rolling by horses on the turn and kept on rolling past all of them, winning by three-quarters of a length.

The mare Jakarta, seen most recently winning the Dec 28 $100,000 Mrs. Claus Stakes at Parx, was in a pace duel up top. She finally got rid of the other speed horse only to be confronted by the closers including Just One Time. Jakarta held gamely to be third, running her record on fast dirt surfaces to 6 wins, 1 second and a third in 10 starts.

It was some showing by the two Pa. breds in open stakes against such accomplished mares as Four Graces and Pacific Gale.

It was a several-hour wait until Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Knicks Go and BC Dirt Mile winner Life Is Good entered the starting gate for the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational. There were nine horses in the gate, but only two mattered. Very late money made Life Is Good a slight 4-5 favorite while Knicks Go, who had been the favorite until the end, went off at 9-10.

The race essentially was over 100 yards in when Life Is Good easily beat Knicks Go to the lead. When you give a talent like Life Is Good that kind of an edge, he will win just about every time. He won this time by 3 1/4 lengths, but it never felt that close.

Knicks Go was 10-for-13 in his career when he had a clear lead, 0-for-10 when he did not. Making his final start before going to stud, Knicks Go kept trying all the way to the finish line, holding off Stilleto Boy the length of the stretch to save second by a length. It was a very impressive effort for a horse that had not shown much fight earlier in his career when taken out of his comfort zone.

We will never know this, but, if he hadn’t been hurt in the runup to the 2021 Triple Crown, I will always believe Life Is Good was going to win the Kentucky Derby and perhaps even the Triple Crown. The now 4-year-old is an uncharacteristically tentative Mike Smith ride from being unbeaten in seven starts. Life Is Good beat 2021 Derby winner Medina Spirit twice last winter, once close, once in a blowout.

So, as Knicks Go leaves the stage, Life Is Good takes center stage. After the race, his trainer Todd Pletcher said Life Is Good is the best horse he’s ever had. That is some statement from a man who has trained some of the very best.

Life Is Good, as announcer Larry Collmus said at the end of his Del Mar debut, is “very, very, very good.’’ So now we await the next titanic confrontation. If we are lucky, sometime during 2022, we will see Life Is Good in the same starting gate as the incredible Flightline. Can’t wait.

PARX AWARDS FOR 2021

By Dick Jerardi

When I went over each of the horses listed for all the categories on the 2021 Parx Horse of the Year ballot, it was hard not to relive all the wonderful performances we saw at the track last year.

The winners in all the categories and Horse of the Year will be announced at the annual Awards Banquet on Saturday, Feb. 19 (5:30-10 p.m.) at Celebrations. Many of the winners are fairly obvious, others less so. Be interesting to find out what the 15 voters decided.

I voted for Dance Code as best 2-year-old male. The Pennsylvania bred, owned by Richie’s World Stables LLC and trained by Juan Vazquez, finished off a terrific season by wiring the $100,000 Parx Juvenile on Dec. 29. Earlier, the son of Honor Code, had finished third in the Grade III Saratoga Special in July just after breaking his maiden at Parx in June. The colt also won a Parx allowance in November and had earnings of $157,260.

Impressive Pennsylvania Nursery winner Witty was also likely to get some support from voters as he was dazzling in a victory that day.

I went for Pa. Bred Dance Code as the top 2-year-old filly. Before unsuccessfully trying the boys in the Nursery, she had won three straight by a combined 26 3/4 lengths. One of those wins was in the Shamrock Rose Stakes at Penn National. In her first two races, Dance Code, owned by Cash Is King LLC and LC Racing LLC and trained by Butch Reid, finished second. She earned $210,460.

Pennsylvania Bred Beren, also trained by Reid and owned by St. Omer’s Farm and Christopher Feifarek, had an incredible 2021 and was an easy selection for me as top 3-year-old male. Both Dance Code and Beren are by Weigelia, one of Reid’s favorite sires. All Beren did in 2021 was go 7-for-12 with 2 seconds, win five stakes and earn $469,790. The colt won two stakes at Belmont Park, two at Parx, one at Penn National and then did everything but win the $250,000 Steel Valley Sprint at Mahoning Valley before settling for second. It was a brilliant campaign that began in early January and ended in late November.

Hollywood Jet (five wins) and I Am Redeemed (four wins, including the $100,000 Storm Cat) had really good years. Marvelous Mike won three times and had the misfortune of running into Beren three other times.

Leader of the Band, another Pa. Bred by Bandox, was an obvious choice as top 3-year-old filly. She never ran a bad race in seven starts. She won the Grade III Monmouth Oaks, finished third in the Grade III Delaware Oaks and second in the $150,000 Cathryn Sophia at Parx. Racing for SMD Ltd and trainer John Servis, she tried the Grade I Cotillion against some of the best fillies in the country, but never had much of a chance with her come-from-behind style when the pace was so slow. Leader of the Band earned $284,700 last year.

There were some really good and consistent older male horses that ran at Parx in 2021 – Admiral Abe (five wins, $266,872), Magic Michael (seven wins, $307,560), Sevier (11 wins, $257,150), Sheer Flattery (seven wins, $166,060) and Why Why Paul Why (five wins, $155,250) among others. I found this one of the tougher categories, but ended up voting for Magic Michael. His win the $200,000 Greenwood Cup on Pennsylvania Derby Day and the fact that he raced in every month but October put him over the top for me. And this horse, with nine wins and a second ar Parx, loves his home track. Magic Michael is owned by Morris E. Kernan, Jr., Yo Berbs Racing and Jagger Inc. The now 5-year-old is trained by Jamie Ness.

In another year, horses like Precious (won a stake and placed in two others) and Sweet Willemina (PTHA President’s Cup and Claiming Crown winner) would have received serious consideration as top older female, but not in a year with the amazing Chub Wagon. All the Pa. bred filly did in 2021 was go 8-for-9 with one second. She won three stakes at Parx, two at Pimlico and one at Delaware Park. She also won an allowance at Aqueduct. She is barely a length from behind unbeaten in 11 career starts, that lone loss coming on a sloppy track that she may not have liked.

Trained by Lupe Preciado and owned by Danny Lopez and George Chestnut, Chub Wagon was simply amazing from March to September and I can’t wait to see her back on the track in 2022.

So many great claims at Parx in 2021, but hard not to vote for Thorny Tale, claimed by Ness and Jagger for $12,500 in January. She won the day she was claimed and five times thereafter, the very definition of a great claim.

So many good candidates for Claimer of the Year, including 11-win Sevier, seven-win Flattery and six-win Shero. I went with Sweet Willemina. Scott Lake claimed her for $32,000 in June at Churchill Downs. She came to Parx and had an incredible run from late June until late December for Rich Ciavardone and Lake’s Home Team Stables, winning seven times, including a stake at Parx and the Glass Slipper at Gulfstream. Lake has made some amazing claims in his career, but Sweet Willemina must be one of the very best.

One could certainly make a case for Beren or Leader of the Band as the 2021 Parx Horse of the Year, but I can’t get past Chub Wagon. During a year when he won his 2,000th race, Parx Hall of Famer Lupe Preciado was entrusted with the care of his horse of a lifetime. She was managed perfectly and nearly had a perfect season. She is my 2021 Parx Horse of the Year.

JEFF MATTY’S LOVE OF HORSE RACING COMES TO THE PTHA

By Dick Jerardi

Jeff Matty fell in love with horse racing at Philadelphia Park. His father, who always had a few horses, would take him to the track on Saturday mornings to watch the horses train. Then, they would go out to breakfast, discuss race strategy and stable management strategy.

When the Saint Joseph’s University graduate, after a decade working in various aspects of the sport, was offered an opportunity to interview for the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemens’ Association (PTHA) executive director position upon Mike Ballezzi’s retirement, he was honored to be considered. When he was offered the position, he was thrilled to say yes.

Now that he has been on the job for two weeks, he has some fascinating insights into what he has experienced so far.

“Our staff has been second to none,’’ Matty said. “They’re getting me up to speed on everything. (PTHA president) Sal (DeBunda) is just a phone call away. He’s been great. Almost every single one of the board members has called, if not every other day, every third day just to check-in and see how I’m doing. You can tell how passionate they are about this place, how supportive they are of me, and how they want this to be a success. It’s really been great.’’

Matty became a racing official at Parx right after college graduation. He credits longtime Parx official Albert Ott as showing him the ropes. From Parx, he went to Monmouth Park also as a racing official. He learned how the racing office works and saw what he calls “behind the ropes.’’

The day after the 2014 Pennsylvania Derby (aka the California Chrome Pa. Derby),  Joe Besecker also a St. Joe’s grad hired Matty as his stable manager.

“Joe taught me everything, how to operate at Parx, how to operate at Penn National,’’ Matty said “We’ve had horses all the way from Philadelphia to California to Florida to Saratoga.’’

Besecker’s stable won its 1000th race this summer, Matty was there for 750 of them.

“It was a great run and I enjoyed every single day and the most important part, the part I liked the best was the interactions with the horsemen,’’ Matty said. “This position is a great transition to that. Dealing with all of Joe’s trainers, we’ve had as much as 15 to 20 on the payroll at one time. So I understand the challenges. I understand what they go through on a daily basis and for me to now accept this position, I think it gave me the experience necessary to sort of go to bat for them on a daily basis knowing what they go through.’’

From his first interview with DeBunda until he was offered the job, Matty also worked on Besecker’s second dispersal sale in two years. It was a whirlwind, but now the new executive director is settled in at his new job.

“I knew there were many different facets to the office,’’ Matty said. “I didn’t know just how many…The part I didn’t expect was just how passionate and involved that our staff is. They each have their specificial roles and duties. This is more than a job to them and it’s going to be more than a job to me.’’

 The PTHA is unique in the sport with its pension plan, medical insurance and Turning For Home program, the industry model for how to retire race horses.

“We have people dedicated to those areas,’’ Matty said.

In his first two weeks, Matty has had several horsemen stop by his office to tell him “our healthcare plan not only has helped them, it saved their life.’’

Parx, Matty said, is where “a lot of our horsemen have dedicated their lives and their careers to being here. If we can provide them healthcare, the pension plan, we need to provide it because without them, we are nothing.’’

Every race track has racing, Matty said, but few have what Parx has in the medical coverage, pensions and Turning For Home.

TFH Program administrator Danielle Montgomery and her sidekick Dani Gibson are two of those passionate PTHA staff members Matty spoke of with gratitude.

“I think we’re the gold standard in retirement programs so we’re going to take what Mr. Ballezzi formed and continue it,’’ Matty said. “I think that’s what we can be most proud of, our aftercare program.’’  There is no question about that, just as there is no question Jeff Matty is the right man at the right time in the right place as the PTHA begins a new chapter.