By Dick Jerardi
The all-morning rain let up as post time approached on Pennsylvania Derby Day 2023. The wind did not. It was relentless.
But so were the customers who mostly stayed inside, but made the very best of an unfortunate hand. So were the horses and horsemen who put on a 7-hour show that nobody who was at Parx or watching from home will soon forget.
A total of 134 horses ran in the 14 races, a sensational average of 9.6 per race in this era of small fields and an aversion to risk. That was a tribute to the racing office which put together another sensational Derby Day card.
The races went off without incident, a tribute to the effort put forth by the track maintenance crew. On a day when every other mid-Atlantic track canceled, Parx, with the help of a window where the rain let up, was able to run all of its races when they were scheduled to be run.
And the players responded with a total handle of just more than $17 million, the second highest in the 49-year history of the track. Only last year’s $18.8 million, on a perfect day, has been better.
If you were there or watching from home, you saw a star on the rise in Pa. Derby winner Saudi Crown, an emerging filly in Cotillion winner Ceiling Crusher who barely held off likely 3-year-old filly champion Pretty Mischievous, the incredible marathon specialist Next win the Greenwood Cup by an amazing 25 lengths and a filly by Smarty Jones, Aiofe’s Magic, romp in The Imply.
Local trainers (Bobbi Ann Hawthorne, David Dotolo, Jamie Ness and Butch Reid) won four of the 10 stakes, with a fifth going to Penn National-based Bruce Kravets. Favorites won eight of the races, but four odds-on favorites were beaten.
And Jessica Paquette, 10 months and more than 1,000 race calls into her race-calling job, became the first female to call a Grade I race when the Cotillion went off at 5.22 p.m., followed 49 minutes later by the Pennsylvania Derby itself.
The Derby marked the moment Saudi Crown delivered on the promise trainer Brad Cox saw when he was a 2-year-old last summer at Saratoga. The colt did not make his first start until April 16 and was two nose defeats from being unbeaten in four starts as he entered the starting gate at Parx.
Saudi Crown immediately hit the front under aggressive jockey Florent Geroux, ran the other speed horses into submission and had enough to hold off the surprising late rally of Dreamlike. The 6-length margin to third-place Il Miracolo (the Smarty Jones Stakes winner) told a story. So did the 105 Beyer figure after a 105 in the Jim Dandy and a 106 in the Dwyer, excruciating photo-finish losses. Saudi Crown is a serious player in the 3-year-old division and, Cox said, the colt may very well go on to the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita.
The Cotillion was run almost exactly the same as the Derby, with Ceiling Crusher playing the part of Saudi Crown and Pretty Mischievous’ late charge looking eerily similar to Dreamlike’s. But the California speed of Ceiling Crusher, with jockey Edwin Maldonado winning the second Grade I of his career, was the difference for trainer Doug O’Neill. The California-bred filly is now 6-for-7 with one third. Pretty Mischievous may have fallen just short of her fourth consecutive Grade I win, but her record of 7 wins, 2 seconds and a third speaks to her consistent excellence.
There is no recent comp for Next who just keeps going and going and going, no matter the distance. The Greenwood Cup was his third win at 1 1/2 miles. He also won a stake at 1 3/4 miles and another at 1 5/8 miles. The latter was in the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance Breeders’ Cup weekend last year at Keeneland. Next will try for a repeat in the race at Santa Anita this year.
Next was claimed for $62,500 on April 16, 2022 at Keeneland by owner Michael Foster. Trainer William “Doug” Cowans employed jockey Luan Machado when they began running in marathons and horse, trainer and rider have been golden since then with earnings of nearly $700,000.
Indiana bred Nobody Listens joined the ranks of Parx legends, Ben’s Cat and Pure Sensation, with the Parx Dash/Turf Monster double. The connections were thinking of a start in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. Then, on the van ride back to the horse’s Horseshoe Indianapolis base, Nobody Listens was apparently frightened by the sound of a semi braking behind the horse trailer, jumped up and was fatally injured. His brilliant career included 26 starts, 14 wins, 7 seconds and a firm place in Parx Racing history.
The feel-good moment of the day came in Race 3, the $150,000 Imply for Pennsylvania bred 2–year-old fillies. Aoife’s Magic, a daughter of Smarty Jones, had been so dominant in her debut that trainer David Dotolo brought her back in just 12 days. She was equally dominant in the stake, winning easily by 4 1/4 lengths.
Watching from her home in Florida, Smarty’s owner Pat Chapman sent this text: “Was almost like watching Smarty run. My heart is still pounding!’’
Now, we look ahead to 2024 which will mark the 20th anniversary of Smarty Jones’ Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins as well as the 50th year of the opening of Keystone/Philadelphia Parx/Parx Racing. It will be a year for memories, celebrations and, no doubt, another unforgettable Pennsylvania Derby Day in September.