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.


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.

BOB BAFFERT WINS RECORD SEVENTH KENTUCKY DERBY

By Dick Jerardi

When Bob Baffert came to Parx in September 2017, he was unfailingly polite and accommodating. He posed for photos and signed autographs for anybody who asked.

The biggest name in horse racing was there to run West Coast in the Pennsylvania Derby. The colt dominated the race, winning with ease. But it was the trainer who made the most lasting impression.

Baffert arrived at Parx that year as the winner of four Kentucky Derbies and one Triple Crown. Less than four years later, he is the winner of a record seven Kentucky Derbies and two Triple Crowns.

This time, Baffert won the Derby with a horse that cost $1,000 as a yearling and $35,000 as a 2-year-old. He did it with a horse that was essentially used as a first-turn blocker for his faster and more celebrated stablemate Life Is Good in the March 6 San Felipe Stakes, eventually finishing second by 8 lengths. A month later, after Life Is Good was sidelined with an ankle injury, that colt, Medina Spirit, was the odds-on favorite to win the Santa Anita Derby.  Only he got outrun for the lead by Rock Your World, could never catch up and lost ground in the stretch.

So Medina Spirit, the second string, showed up at Churchill Downs way under the radar. Baffert himself did not appear overly confident, just not sure if Medina Spirit was good enough.

Buffert and his team are so good as so much that is required to succeed at the top levels of the sport that it is often overlooked how good they are reading races and formulating the proper strategy.

And it was that strategy that was the key to 12-1 Medina Spirit’s Derby triumph. The colt’s best win came in the Robert Lewis Stakes when he took the lead immediately and, despite good horses running at him the whole way, refused to give up the lead, even when he looked beaten numerous times.

So the plan was for John Velazquez to put Medina Spirit on the lead, if he was fast enough to get there. Providentially, two other potential speed horses, Midnight Bourbon (missed the break) and Rock Your World (sandwiched at the break) were essentially eliminated at the start. Then, when Florent Geroux, just to the inside of Medina Spirit on Mandaloun, chose to ride passively into the first turn and cede to lead to Johnny V. and Medina Spirit, the race set up just as Baffert had hoped.

Medina Spirit was alone in front, going comfortably in fractions of :23.09, :46.70 and 1:11.21, not at all fast on a track surface that was quite quick. Mandaloun, Hot Rod Charlie and favored Essential Quality were each just a few lengths behind, all within striking distance.

Those four separated from the field by the quarter pole and all flew home in about 25 seconds for the final quarter-mile. But when they are all running fast, the horse in front always has the advantage. Medina Spirit just kept running through the wire, with Mandaloun a half-length back and Hot Rod Charlie another half-length behind.

It was a wonderful horse race with a familiar result for a trainer who can rightly be described as an American sports legend.

Earlier on the Churchill Downs card, the 4-year-old filly Gamine won the Derby City Distaff, giving Baffert a record 220 North American Grade I wins, one more than D. Wayne Lukas. The Derby made it 221.

So, it’s on to the May 15 Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore where the first five of Baffert’s Derby winners won. Authentic, the 2020 Derby winner did everything but win the Preakness last year as the brilliant filly Swiss Skydiver held off the eventual Horse of the Year.

Baffert also won the Preakness with non-Derby winners Point Given and Lookin at Lucky. So that is seven Preakness winners to go along with the seven Derby winners. Point Given and Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify each won the Belmont Stakes for Baffert, giving him a record 17 Triple Crown race wins, a record that is likely only to be surpassed by one man – Bob Baffert.

THE PARX CONNECTIONS

When Brooklyn Strong left Barn 9 at Parx the Monday evening before the Derby, the colt was, in every way, a last-minute addition to the Derby field. Trainer Danny Velazquez would certainly have preferred a chance to make a detailed plan, but the opportunity to run came up at the last minute. So there was no time for a real plan as the colt headed out on his 12-hour van ride to Louisville.

Whatever small chance 43-1 Brooklyn Strong had to be a Derby factor was gone when the colt hesitated at the start. Never in contention, the Brooklyn Strong checked in 15th, beaten by 18 1/4 lengths.

Parx Hall of Famer Kendrick Carmouche got his first Derby ride on Wood Memorial winner Bourbonic. It did not help that the colt drew the 20 post, 19 after King Fury scratched. Bourbonic, who went off at 30-1, has no speed and from that post, Carmouche had little choice but to head for the rail and the back of the pack where all that flying dirt must have felt like he was riding through a desert. Second to last early, Bourbonic passed a few late to finish 13th, beaten by 16 lengths.

KENDRICK CARMOUCHE GOES FOR THE ROSES

By Dick Jerardi

He has been riding for two decades now. Has won more than 3,400 races. Got his first Grade I win last year.

Saturday, Kendrick Carmouche, unquestionably one of the best jockeys in the near 50-year history of Parx Racing, will ride in his first Kentucky Derby.

His earliest Derby memory is watching the race with his family, “just us sitting around, betting the race between the family. I never won. I didn’t know what I was doing then.’’

He knows what he is doing now.

That was Carmouche coming from last to win the Wood Memorial on 72-1 shot Bourbonic for trainer Todd Pletcher and Calumet Farm.

“There was one person that thought that horse was going to win,’’ Pletcher said. “Kendrick.’’

The jockey has an incredible talent to go along with a great attitude and self-confidence. He just believes he will find a way.

Put him on a live horse and he will give the horse every chance.

Carmouche has ridden at Churchill Downs “four or five times,’; but this will be different, very different.

Carmouche will ride Gazelle Stakes runner-up Maracuja in Friday’s Kentucky Oaks for trainer Rob Atras. He is on Parx-based Three Two Zone for trainer Marya Montoya in the Pat Day Mile on the Derby undercard.

“The only time I really think about the Derby is when I’m going to sleep,’’ Carmouche said. “I think about it a lot when I go to sleep.. Whenever I’m riding, I’m locked in. When that day comes, I’ve got to be ready for that day. But for right now, I’ve got to be grinding it out. Having a clear mind about everything.’’

He is, he said, “more of a Bob Marley, just chill, think about one thing. If the other thing pops up later, we think about that one. You don’t overthink situations.’’

When Carmouche left Parx for New York in 2015, it was for moments like this. He just wanted to give himself a chance to get into the barns that have the horses that run in the major stakes races around the country.

“Man, I’m hungry,’’ Kendrick Carmouche said. “I see the tide is turning.’’

Bourbonic won’t be 72-1 in the Derby, but he will be very long odds again. Carmouche, however, does not read the tote board. He reads the race and cautions not to assume his horse will be so far back this time.

“Just because that was my strategy last time does not mean it will be my strategy this time,’’ he said.

Some jockey is going to win this race.When it was suggested, why not you, Carmouche readily concurred.

“That’s the way I’m thinking,’’ he said. “I ain’t thinking no other way. I’m going to get them roses. I’m going to get the pink ones before too. Don’t count my filly out.’’

And that right there is the essential Kendrick Carmouche. He is a believer.

NEW ANNOUNCER CHRIS GRIFFIN ARRIVES AT PARX

By Dick Jerardi

He has called horse races at 10 tracks around the United States. He has traveled the world as the announcer for the Globetrotters. On April 12, Chris Griffin called his first race at Parx.

Keith Jones retired in December after 34 years as the track’s announcer. After a search, Griffin, a native of Santa Monica, Calif and most recently the announcer at Sam Houston Race Park, was chosen to be the track’s voice.

“You don’t replace Keith Jones, but you try to emulate him, his professionalism, the way he went about things,’’ Griffin said. “I’m excited about it. It’s a great opportunity.’’

An earned opportunity.

“My story starts, my dad used to take me to the track,’’ Griffin said. “I’m a west coast guy so I grew up at Santa Anita and Pomona (Fairplex). Some of my early memories as a kid, just picking colors and horses…

The journey for me has been really interesting. I actually thought I was going to run restaurants for a long time…I got out of that business.’’

And he got into drag racing and then, for six years, became the announcer for the Harlem Globetrotters.

“I always loved horse racing, very passionate, loved watching it, always kept track of it,’’ Griffin said. “You would find the one or two guys who were in your age range at that time that really like horse racing and we’d just cruise up to Hollywood Park on Friday nights and the whole deal.’’

Griffin met up with now Santa Anita announcer Frank Mirahmadi one meet at Los Alamitos, ended up in the booth and asked Mirahmadi: “what does it take to do this?’’

Mirahmadi said: “I’ll get you a job.’’

So he did.

Larry Swartzlander, the executive director of the California Authority of Racing Fairs, called and, despite never having heard Griffin call a race, hired him to be the announcer at the Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale, Calif. because Mirahmadi said he could do it.

So he did it.

“Frank says you can do it so let’s give you a shot for 7 days,’’ Swartzlander told him.       

 Griffin remembers that first call vividly

“I shaking, I was nervous,’’ Griffin said., “I was thinking `okay thoroughbreds, the backstretch, they’re going to go into the turn’ and my first race was a 220-yard mule race during the fair circuit with a 1-9 shot on the rail that broke last that I was prepared to call the winner the entire way.’’

If you can survive that, you have a chance.

Griffin’s race track journey has taken him to call races at Portland Meadows. Los Alamitos, Gulfstream Park West and Monmouth Park among other tracks. He was the regular announcer and marketing manager at Sam Houston from the fall of 2018 until its meet that just ended.

His life journey included all those trips around the country and the world with the Trotters. It was seven months on the road (six and sometimes seven days a week, with doubleheaders on many weekends), five months of PR appearances. They were sponsored by Greyhound so Griffin saw the country by bus.  He also thinks he visited 23 countries.

“To see the world and not have to pay for it, it’s a fantastic thing,’’ Griffin said.

So why Parx?

“I think it was the region for me,’’ Griffin said. “I think it was the appeal for some great quality racing. For me, it was time to make a move. I really appreciated my time in Houston and in that region and was proud of what we built there.

“But I know that the east coast, this is a market that I wanted to be in. I wanted to be at Parx Racing because there are big races, just the feel of you’re stepping up to a bigger moment for me. When I’m doing that, that’s where I want to be career-wise. I think we always want to strive to reach the top of the game. That’s why I’m here.’’

TEN STRAIGHT FOR NESS AT PARX

By Dick Jerardi

It began on the last Tuesday of March and ended on the first Tuesday of April. As it took a week, Jamie Ness did not realize it was happening until it was almost over.

Since Keystone/Philadelphia Park/Parx opened in 1974, an estimated 100,000 races have been run. There is no record of this exactly, but it is safe to say until Ness did it over four racing days, no trainer had ever won 10 straight races at the track.

“I had five in on Monday,’’ Ness said. “One of my buddies called me from California. He was betting Parx, said `you like anything today.’ I said `Troy, you know what, everything’s got to go right, but I think I’m dead on in all five races today.’ I’ve been there before and been 0-for-5.’’

Ness went 5-for-5. He had won with his only starter the previous Tuesday and then went 2-for-2 on Wednesday. After five days off, he won those five. And the next day, he went 2-for-2 until the streak finally ended when Love In Her Eyes ran into 1-5 Dr. B (named for First Lady Jill Biden) in Race 9 last Tuesday.

The trainer did not know about the streak until somebody said: “man, are you going to lose a race?’’

When somebody wondered how many he had won in a row, they had to look it up and Ness said: “Holy Bleep.’’

“You’ve got to have a little luck,’’ Ness said. “I win two races by a last bob.’’

Factor This In was the fourth of the five winners on Monday. When speedy Petulant Delight missed the break, Factor This In was left alone on the lead. The horse went all the way, holding on to win by a head at 11-1.That was the biggest price among the 10 as the others were so well spotted, they were: 8-5, 3-2, 2-1, 2-5, 2-1, 1-2, 4-5, 3-5 and 3-5. Ruben Silvera, the leading jockey at Parx with 49 winners in 2021, rode seven of the 10 winners.

The horses won at 6 furlongs, 7 furlongs (three times), a mile (twice), a mile and 70 yards (twice), a mile and a sixteenth and a mile and a half. The horses earned $135,000. Four were claimed for another $41,000.

And Ness wasn’t just winning at Parx. He went 4-for-4 over two days at Laurel last week and won two more at Penn National.

One horse ran second at Laurel and got put up. Another is “a stake horse in the mud, 25 claimer on the dirt. I’ll be damned if it didn’t pour raining. He win easy.’’

 It was just one of those rolls that you hope never end.

“A lot of times, everything can go wrong,’’ Ness said. “This time, everything went right.’’

Ness has won 3,255 races and his horses have earned $56 million. Today, he has 52 horses at Parx, 21 at Laurel, 22 at Delaware, some layoff horses and 2-year-olds at a Delaware training center. 

“Never have we been on a streak like we’ve been on right now,’’ he said.

“I’ve got pretty good horses right now, the best stable that I’ve ever had. It’s like the old saying goes: `I’ve got a good feed program. I feed good horses.’’’

Ness is putting the miles on his car. When gas went up, Ness figured he had to win another race a week. He is doing that and then some.

After easily winning the 2020 trainers’ title at Parx with 109 winners, Ness already has 39 Parx wins in 2021, 22 clear of second-place Scott Lake.  Ness has those Parx milestones and now he has a record that should stand the test of time.

KENDRICK CARMOUCHE IN FIRST DERBY

By Dick Jerardi

When 2021 began, there were serious hopes that a Parx-based horse would make the Kentucky Derby.

Well, there won’t be a horse, but there will be a jockey (albeit a graduate), one of the very best in the nearly 50-year history of the track.

Kendrick Carmouche rode 72-1 shot Bourbonic in the Wood Memorial for Calumet Farm and trainer Todd Pletcher. The horse was so far behind during much of the race that it was hard to see him watching the video.

But there the colt was, passing horses one by one, until finally only stablemate Dynamic One was in front of him. In the final strides, Bourbonic got by Dynamic One, winning by a head.

 And Carmouche, a member of the Parx Hall of Fame, had his first Derby mount.

“I’m thrilled for Calumet Farm. I won my first Grade 1 with True Timber in the Cigar Mile for them and now I won the Wood for them,” Carmouche said. “These past six months of my career have just been what you dream of.’’

There were three Parx-based horses intended for the Wood. Jerome Stakes winner Capo Kane was not entered after an ankle issue that will keep him sidelined for a few months. Remsen Stakes winner Brooklyn Strong, who missed serious training time this winter due first to an illness and then to weather-related track closures, was admittedly rushed by trainer Danny Velazuez to make the race. Market Maven, who had won two straight at Parx for trainer Penny Pearce, was also entered in the Wood.

Market Maven, under Parx jockey Dexter Haddock, set the pace at 70-1 before fading in the stretch to finish eighth. Brooklyn Strong, sent off at 7-1, was making his first start in four months. The gelding was kind of stuck inside most of the way, never really comfortable. Still, Brooklyn Strong ran respectably, considering the circumstances with just 5 weeks of serious training, finishing fifth, beaten by 5 lengths. Could be better days ahead.

Carmouche was originally supposed to ride Nicky the Vest in the Wood. When that colt was not entered due to an injury, Carmouche got the mount on Bourbonic, a colt Pletcher had not planned on running. But Brad Kelly, owner of Calumet Farm, wanted his colt in a Derby points race, just in case.

 So that is how Bourbonic ended up in the Wood Memorial winner’s circle with more than enough points for a spot in the Derby starting gate.

“Todd asked me what I was going to do and I told him I wouldn’t move,” Carmouche said. “I was just going to sit, sit, sit, sit and hopefully get out the last quarter of a mile. I knew he would go on from there. My horse was in a good stride. Each pole I was picking them up one by one without even asking.”

Bourbonic did not run very fast, getting the mile and an eighth in 1:54.49 which computes to an 89 Beyer figure. So the colt will be a huge longshot in the Derby. But, as Carmouche knows better than anybody, you can’t win it if you are not in it.

You can’t make it up. Now, Parx’s favorite son will be riding in his first Kentucky Derby on May 1.

MISCHEVIOUS ALEX WINS GRADE I CARTER

Mischievous Alex, owned by Parx regulars Chuck Zacney and Glenn Bennett, continued his perfect 4-year-old season with a blowout win in the Carter Handicap while getting a career-best 109 Beyer figure.

The colt, a son of Into Mischief, the hottest sire around, broke his maiden at Parx on June 25, 2019. He won the Swale and Gotham last year for trainer John Servis.

Now trained in Florida by Saffie Joseph, Mischievious Alex likely will be pointed for the Grade I Metropolitan Mile on Belmont Stakes Day. There is a reasonable chance he could meet up that day with Charlatan, most recently second in the $20 million Saudi Cup.

CURRENT REALITY AT PARX RACING

By Dick Jerardi

In my 33 years covering horse racing at the “Philadelphia Daily News,’’ I was never shy about criticism when criticism was necessary. When I set out to right a perceived wrong, I made certain to research a subject so my viewpoint could be supported by facts.

Does horse racing have significant issues on a national and local scale? Absolutely.

Have too many in positions of power in the game been too comfortable for too long? No doubt.

So, as there were when I started writing about the sport, unresolved issues remain. But there has been progress in making racing safer for the horses and caring for those horses as their racing careers come to an end. Any objective look at where the sport was a decade ago and where it is now would uncover that fact.

Embarrassingly, however, the “Inquirer’s’’ recent story on racing at Parx specifically and Pennsylvania in general got too many basic facts wrong. When you can’t get facts right, your credibility becomes the issue.

The story conflated statistics, which was either sloppy reporting or deliberately misleading. A chart that accompanied the article told a story very different than the one the author was trying to make. The chart showed the progress in horse safety that has been made in recent years while the author, focusing on just one outlier year (2019), was arguing the opposite.

It is a sad fact that some horses suffer catastrophic injuries during races. I was at Belmont Park in 1990 when Go For Wand broke down yards from the finish line at the Breeders’ Cup. I was there at Pimlico in 2006 when Barbaro’s right hind ankle shattered just yards into the Preakness. I have been there on regular race days when a horse breaks down. It is always heartbreaking, more so for the people that care for the animals that anyone else. In a perfect world, the number of breakdowns would be zero. It is not a perfect world, but the object is to get as close to zero as possible.

For some unknown reason, there were more racing deaths at Parx in 2019 than the four years that preceded it, but still significantly down from 2013 and 2014.

“The horsemen, the racing commission, the vets, we all started to take steps,’’ said Sal DeBunda, the president of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “That’s all been outlined by the commission, all the different things we did.’’

DeBunda told the author how the industry responded should be part of the story, that “we’re heading back toward zero.’’ Nothing DeBunda told the writer about the steps taken appeared in the article.

In fact, the writer conflated the 2019 numbers and essentially ignored a dramatic decrease in racing-related deaths in 2020. In 2019, horses made 12,312 starts at Parx, with 32 racing-related deaths. There were also six deaths during training and 22 at the barns from diseases such as colic which can happen to horses whether they are in training or not.

The writer took all 60 deaths and concluded there were 4.9 deaths per 1,000 starts. The actual number was 2.6 deaths per 1,000 starts, not acceptable, but nearly 50 percent lower than the writer erroneously stated.

In 2020, there were just 8,284 starts at Parx as the track was closed for three months due to the pandemic. There were nine racing-related deaths at Parx or just 1.1 per 1,000 starts.  Those numbers were not included in the article.

The “Inquirer’’ story would suggest that almost every horse in training is on some illegal drug and thus susceptible to breakdowns. The suggestion is not supported by anything other than a few anecdotes and generalities.

The article quotes Lee Midkiff who “owned Animal Kingdom when the stallion won the 2011 Kentucky Derby,’’ saying he was so disgusted with the drug use he left the sport.

Animal Kingdom was actually owned by Team Valor, a syndicate run by Barry Irwin. According to Animal Kingdom’s trainer Graham Motion, Midkiff was one of many members of the syndicate that owned Animal Kingdom, but saying he was the owner “would be a stretch.’’

Yes, there are cheaters, but the vast majority of owners and trainers want the cheaters out so as to level the playing field. There are veterinary exams before races, at the gate, and post-race drug tests. Anybody that cheats should be banned.

Could the testing be better and more uniform from state to state? Yes. Will the new federal Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, signed into law in December, make it better when the United States Anti-Doping Agency takes over testing on a national basis? Hopefully.

For some unknown reason, the “Inquirer’’ article linked indicted for alleged illegal drug use trainers Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro with Pennsylvania racing, saying those two trainers “have raced hundreds of horses at Parx and Penn National.’’

In fact, Servis raced mainly in Florida, New Jersey, and New York. Navarro raced mostly in New Jersey and Florida

In 2020, before he was indicted and ruled off every track in America, Servis started 92 horses. One was at Parx and none at Penn National. In 2019, Servis started 519 horses – 18 at Parx, 3 at Penn National.

In 2020, before his indictment, Navarro had 134 starts, with none in Pennsylvania. In 2019, Navarro started 769 horses – 57 at Parx, 51 at Penn.

The article discusses XY Jet, a horse trained and allegedly given illegal drugs by Navarro. The horse won more than $3 million in 26 career races. None of those races were in Pennsylvania. Marcos Zulueta, a trainer who was based at Parx and was allegedly working with Navarro, was immediately tossed out of the track after the indictments were made public.

 The story mentions the Servis-trained Maximum Security won the first “Saudi Cup in Dubai.’’ Wouldn’t it make more sense for the Saudi Cup to be run where it was actually run – Saudi Arabia?

The writer says as he has in previous stories about horse racing, that attendance is way down at Pennsylvania tracks. The reality is nobody knows the attendance because there is no admission. The other reality is that 90 percent of the money bet on horse racing is bet away from the track and it has been that way for years so “attendance’’ is essentially irrelevant.

DeBunda said he explained to the writer he “believes horses racing are as safe as the horses who are not racing because they are treated like athletes, their temperature is taken, their joints are touched, they’re exercised. If they have a problem, there is a vet called in right away to give them the proper treatment or medication. They are looked at in the morning by a vet to see if they are fit to run in the race. A jockey can scratch a horse at any time. A vet can scratch a horse, even at the gate…If they are out in the field somewhere, they can run into a fence, get hit by lighting, they can run into each other.’’

DeBunda was quoted in the article, but without any of the reasons cited above.

DeBunda also told the writer about Parx’s “Turning for Home’’ program, the now almost 13-year-old horse rescue program that has become the model for the industry.

Horses at the track are regularly examined by TFH’s team of vets. Once an owner or trainer decides a horse is no longer competitive or might be in danger of developing an injury, that horse is retired from racing and Turning for Home’s team then finds a forever home for the horse where he can live out his years on a farm, often with a new career as a fox hunter or dressage horse, something less stressful than racing.

More than 3,200 horses have been retired through the Turning for Home program. The program is largely funded by a $30 per start fee from the owners. If an owner or trainer is caught trying to sell an infirm horse outside the track rather than giving the animal to Turning for Home, they are banned from the track.

There was no mention of Turning for Home in the article.