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.


By Dick Jerardi

Last year, 128 horses ran in 13 races over 6 1/2 hours on the most successful Pennsylvania Derby Day in history. This year, 151 horses were entered for this Saturday’s 14 races scheduled to be run over 7 hours. Don’t know if the Parx record $18.8 million handle can be eclipsed, but it won’t be for lack of trying by the racing office, which has once again put together a fabulous card for Pa. Derby Day 2023.

There are 10 stakes, two $100,000 maiden races and $4 million in purses, all anchored by the two $1 million Grade I events, the Cotillion for 3-year-old fillies and the Pennsylvania Derby, the final major race exclusively for 3-year-olds, racing’s glamor division.

Saudi Crown is two noses away from being unbeaten, but has not yet won a graded stakes. That may be about to change for the late bloomer from the Brad Cox barn who did not make his first start until April 16. This very fast colt may be the speed of the speed in a race with three other fast early and accomplished colts – Magic Tap, Scotland and two-time stakes winner Reincarnate from the powerful Bob Baffert barn which has won four of the last eight runnings of the Pa. Derby.

The Cotillion will be run 50 minutes before the Derby,  but it is no afterthought as it features the nation’s top 3-year-old filly, three time Grade I winner Pretty Mischievous who has won the Kentucky Oaks, Acorn and Test in succession for trainer Brendan Walsh. Ceiling Crusher comes from California for trainer Doug O’Neill with just one loss in six starts. Foggy Night has the best chance of the locals to break through in one of the big races as she is a two-time stakes winner for trainer Butch Reid.

The 2-year-old stakes, going as races 2 and 3 on the card, include some very promising horses with limited experience but obvious talent.

I am a huge fan of Buy Land and See, equally adept on grass and dirt who is back to defend his title in the Alphabet Soup for Pa. Breds. The Plum Pretty, also for Pa. breds, features Morning Matcha who was good enough to run second in the Cotillion last year.

Ridin With Biden is the defending champ in the 1 1/2-mile Greenwood Cup, but Next, the rare marathon specialist with two wins at the distance and one each at 1 3/4 and 1 5/8 miles, is going to be favored.

The Turf Monster is loaded, but two unbeaten grass fillies (a combined 8-for-8 on tur) are hard to look past – Roses for Debra from the Christophe Clement barn and All That Magic, stabled right at Parx for trainer Kate DeMasi.

Gunite is going to be odds on in the Parx Dirt Mile, with his two Grade I wins and eight triple digit Beyer figures. There is nobody better in the sport over the last decade with sprinters and dirt milers than Gunite’s trainer Steve Asmussen.

The Gallant Bob, perhaps the most inscrutable of the stakes races, has three local horses and seven from out of town. If you are going to play multi-race wagers, this may be one you want to spread.

Whatever you do, it will be impossible to resist getting involved in these races. I am going to frame my plays around Buy Land and See in the Alphabet Soup and Saudi Crown in the Pa. Derby. If they both get home, I better have a good day.

Regardless of how my day goes, Pennsylvania Derby Day 2023 promises to be one of the most memorable in the history of a race track that turns 50 next year.


By Dick Jerardi

The Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks winners are nominated to Parx Racing’s signature events on Sept. 23, the Grade I $1 million Pennsylvania Derby and the Grade I $1 million Cotillion. Unless there is a change of heart, Derby winner Mage is not coming, but Oaks winner Pretty Mischievous is coming. She won’t be without competition in the Oaks, nor will the Derby lack competition with stakes winners from coast to coast nominated.

Unfortunately, the big horse, Arcangelo, the leader of the 3-year-old division, was not nominated as the connections have decided to try to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic with just one race in 21 weeks, something that has not yet been done. It is becoming more of a thing in the last few years with Travers winners (and even Travers also-rans) going into the Classic off 10-week layoffs. Only Hall of Famers American Pharoah and Arrogate have been able to pull that off successfully.

In addition to Mage, the 25 Pa. Derby noms include two other Grade I winners – Santa Anita Derby winner Practical Move and Allen Jerkens winner One In Vermillion. Multiple stakes winner Reincarnate is from the barn of Bob Baffert who has owned the Pa Derby with four of the last eight winners (Bayern, West Coast, McKinzie, Taiba). Brad Cox is sending Saudi Crown after hard luck seconds in the Jim Dandy and Dwyer. Smarty Jones winner Il Miracolo is scheduled to run back.

Pretty Mischievous is the most accomplished 3-year-old of either sex with successive Grade I wins in the Ky. Oaks, Acorn, and Test. She has just about clinched the 3-year-old filly championship. But the Cotillion, with 18 noms, will not be a walkover as Grade I Ashland winner Defining Purpose (trainer Kenny McPeek) is nominated, as are Grade I Alabama winner Randomize and Monmouth Oaks winner Occult, both from the Chad Brown barn. Local hero Foggy Night, winner of the Cathryn Sophia (Cotillion prep) as well as the Delaware Oaks, should be a major player for trainer Butch Reid.

The Gallant Bob drew 18 nominations, including some fast national sprinters as well as local star Gordian Knot. The Turf Monster got 37 nominations, including the very talented Big Invasion and Parx Dash winner Nobody Listens. The 18 Greenwood Cup noms include marathon star Next and the last two winners of the race, Magic Michael (2021) from the Jamie Ness barn and Ridin with Biden (2022) from the Reid barn.

The three other stakes on the card drew a combined 70 nominations – Parx Dirt Mile (28), Alphabet Soup (24) and Plum Pretty (18).

Last year’s Pa. Derby card was the best in track history. This one is shaping up to be sensational as well. The Grade I races will be the centerpiece of a two-hour show (430-630) on NBC Sports Philadelphia. Laffit Pincay III will be the host.


By Dick Jerardi

Back in 2008, Turning For Home was just an idea that was formulating in former PTHA Executive Director Mike Ballezzi’s mind. It went from thought to action so rapidly that TFH, Parx’s model race horse retirement program, marked its 15th anniversary on Labor Day.

A race track’s ecosystem includes owners, trainers, jockeys, backstretch workers, management and bettors. But there is no game without one essential element – horses.

Turning For Home Day at Parx is an annual celebration of all those that contribute to second careers for the horses. And it is a way to remember all the nearly 4,000 horses that have gone through the program.

Owners contribute $100 per start to TFH and that money becomes a vast majority of the TFH funding. The PTHA and Parx make an annual contribution of $50,000 each. The jockeys give $20 per win and $10 per place, an annual outlay of around $30,000. The two-year old golf tournament at Bensalem Country Club is a new fundraising mechanism.

When Parx-based horses are injured and can’t race or are no longer competitive, they come to TFH and are eventually sent off to one of 19 partner farms. The process includes retraining and then rehoming. The owners can follow along to see how their old horses are doing in their new careers which could include hunter/jumper among other disciplines or just a life of leisure at a farm with owners who will care for them.

“I had 32 horses come in (to the program) in the month of August,” program administrator Danielle Montgomery said. “We’ve been averaging 300 horses a year for the last 7 years.”

Ballezzi passed away a year ago, but the program he championed lives on.

“It’s just a tremendous program,” said PTHA president Bob Hutt. “I’m a very large supporter of doing something for our brave warriors who give so much for our enjoyment.’’

Jeff Matty is starting his 21st month as Ballezzi’s successor.

“You don’t realize how much of a village it takes to get a horse over to the races and into the winner’s circle,” Matty said. “It takes that many more for a successful aftercare program.”

The most rewarding part for Montgomery is: “when I see horses that had  slim to no chance and I talk to my farms and they found a perfect home, especially for those horses that can only do a little bit.”

Matty, also a horse owner, has had several horses in the TFH program.

“Once they’re done racing , that’s basically the start of the next life,” he said. “That’s a lot longer duration than the time they were racing so to be able to go to sleep at night knowing that our horses are in the best hands with people that cherish them as much as their owners and trainers cherish them on on the race track, how could you not be proud of that?”

Trainers John Servis and Phil Aristone are both in the Parx Hall of Fame. Each has been a big TFH supporter from the start.

“Everything we accomplished as an organization, the pension and the health insurance, the thing that we (and I know Ballezzi) were proudest of was Turning For Home,”  said Aristone, who was very close with Ballezzi and said he follows some of the horses in TFH that he once trained. “We set the gold standard that every race track in the country looks to use when they are trying to form a (TFH-like) program.”

Servis loved the idea when he first heard about it, but “thought it would be very difficult to get done.”

But he was on the board that got it done. And, 15 years later, it’s still getting done.

“Without the horses, we have nothing,” Servis said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have a couple of my horses retired and do really, really well in the show world so that’s exciting.”

Trainer Marya Montoya is still hearing about horses she put in the program 15 years ago.

“One horse actually went (to a farm next to the original farm),” Montoya said. “They got divorced. I got a call. The neighbors took the horse. Five years later, they’re moving; he went back to his original home. They send me pictures. I’ve put probably a dozen horses in and I follow all of them and they’ve all excelled in new careers because they had that chance through Turning For Home.”

Parx Hall of Fame jockey Frankie Pennington is unquestionably one of the best to ride at the track in its nearly 49-year history.

“The program is unbelievable,” Pennington said of TFH. “It means everything to me and all the other riders here because of everything these horses do for us…Everybody wants to come see the horses. Everything that they put on the line for us so we can enjoy life. We give back… and that way they can have a good (after racing life).”

And that is the TFH bottom line. The horses run for everyone’s pleasure. Now, after they are finished running, they get to have a great second life.


By Dick Jerardi

It was a few minutes after Smarty Jones had just won the Preakness by the biggest margin in the race’s history when Sherry Servis told me her husband John had considered getting out of the game in the late 1990s. Fast forward to Monday, Aug. 21, 2023 at Parx Racing. There was Sherry standing with John, family and friends in the winner’s circle at Parx after John sent out his 2,000th winner in a career that thankfully is still going strong a quarter century after he considered ending it.

Think about what might have happened if Servis had made another decision. There may have been no Act 71 (the slots bill) in 2004. Without that bill, the benefits to so many on the Parx backstretch almost certainly would not exist. The purses would not be remotely in the same place they are today. The Pennsylvania breeding program, one of the country’s best, would be a shell of itself. Who knows what racing in the Commonwealth would look like today without Act 71 being signed into law in the Parx winner’s circle by then Gov. Ed Rendell.

John Servis has been at Parx since 1980, when it was called Keystone, first as a top assistant to trainer Mark Reid and since 1984, as a trainer himself. So, 40 years and 11,348 starts. Still, after the first 15 years, Servis was really wondering if it was worth all the sacrifice.

Then, Jostle happened. The brilliant filly, owned by Rick Porter, won six graded stakes in 1999 and 2000, including the Grade I CCA Oaks and Grade I Alabama.

“Before Jostle, we were just kind of treading water to be honest with you, making ends meet and getting by,” Servis said. “Then, Jostle jumped up, turned out to be runner-up for 3-year-old filly champion and opened a lot of doors.”

When Roy and Pat Chapman’s regular trainer Bob Camac was murdered by his stepson, they needed a trainer for what they were certain would be their final few horses. Reid, who had once trained for the Chapmans, recommended his old assistant John Servis. And that is how Smarty Jones made his way to the Servis barn at what was then called Philadelphia Park in 2003.

All Smarty did was win his way to the 2004 Kentucky Derby with a perfect record. All Servis did in the glare of the Triple Crown spotlight was perform with just as much grace and class as his horse of a lifetime. Even when Smarty was denied his much deserved Triple Crown, Servis made his way to the winner’s circle to congratulate Birdstone’s trainer Nick Zito before answering every question anybody wanted to ask.

Without Smarty Jones’ run to glory that spring, Gov. Rendell thinks Act 71 may never have become law. They had been trying for years to get the bill passed, but it wasn’t until Smarty brought so much attention to the sport and what it needed to survive and then thrive that the necessary votes were there.

And, if John Servis wasn’t training Smarty Jones, who knows if the colt becomes what he became. And, without Smarty, so much of what we now take for granted very likely would not have happened at all.

Servis is 49th all-time on the earnings list with almost $70 million. He is the only trainer to win the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks (Cathryn Sophia, 2016) in his first try. He has won 33 graded stakes, including eight Grade I. He has trained two divisional champions – Smarty Jones 3-year-old champion in 2004, Jaywalk 2-year-old filly champion in 2018 after she won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Win No. 2,000 came in the first race of the first day back after Parx’s 26-day-long summer break. Dewey Doit, a 2-year-old filly, won in her debut.

“When we didn’t get it done before we shut down, I kind of had a feeling it might be a while before it happens,” Servis said. “It’s good to have it done here. This is home. This is where we race most of our horses. I’m tickled to death it happened here.”

With everything he has accomplished in his career, what does 2,000 mean?

“It’s a feather in my cap, but more importantly, it says something about my clientele and my employees,” Servis said. “Most of the guys that work for me have been with me for a long, long time. What they put into the game, that’s what we have gotten back. The owners who have given me the chance to run horses where they can be competitive makes it (possible) to get to 2,000.”