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.
State-breds were in the spotlight on Tuesday at Parx Racing as a pair of stakes races for horses bred in Pennsylvania highlighted the eleven-race card. Undefeated Chub Wagon kept her perfect record intact and rolled to her fifth straight victory in Tuesday’s $100,000 Unique Bella Stakes and Wait for It won the $100,000 Page McKenney Handicap.
In the $100,000 Unique Bella Stakes, Chub Wagon broke alertly under jockey Jomar Torres and repelled an early challenge from I’m the Talent. She widened her lead in the stretch under confident handling and won by 7 1/2 lengths, completing the seven furlong contest in 1:22.21 over a fast track in her third start of the year.
Trained by Guadalupe Preciado, Chub Wagon was making only her second start against Pennsylvania-breds and won against open company at Aqueduct last time out in front-running fashion.
Owned by Daniel J. Lopez and George Chestnut, Chub Wagon went off as the betting favorite at 1-2 odds and returned $3.00 to win. Promised Storm rallied from just off the pace to grab second while Ujjayi finished third.
Chub Wagon was bred in Pennsylvania by Joe-Dan Farm and George Chestnut and the four-year-old filly by Hey Chub has now pushed her career earnings to $172,800.
The stakes action continued in the $100,000 Page McKenney Handicap and Wait for It added his 11th career victory to his impressive resume with a win from off of the pace.
Wait for It, ridden by Anthony Nunez, dropped down to the inside and sat off of a sharp early pace set by Admiral Abe who ultimately faded to sixth. Despite some traffic in the stretch, Wait for It found room and launched a bold late rally to prevail by one-length, completing the seven furlongs in 1:21.72. Chilly in Charge finished second while favorite Breezy Gust ran third.
Owned by Uptowncharlybrown Stud LLC the winner returned $17.60 to win. Trained by Edward Coletti Jr. and bred in Pennsylvania by Fantasy Lane Stable, the six-year-old gelding by Uptowncharlybrown pushed his career earnings to $559,828 and notched his sixth victory at Parx.
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.
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.’’