By Dick Jerardi

The first two of 31 Parx stakes in 2023, worth more than $6 million, are set for Monday (April 24). The $100,000 Page McKenney and $100,000 Unique Belle will get the stakes schedule underway.

There are stakes before Pennsylvania Derby Day (Sept. 23) and after, but make no mistake, everything revolves around that Saturday in September when Parx is showcased not just in the commonwealth, but around the country.

In addition to the Grade I $1 million Pennsylvania Derby (aka the Bob Baffert Derby) and the Grade I $1 million Cotillion (aka the Steve Asmussen Oaks), the big day will have three other graded stakes and five more stakes on a card which has annually become the best in America during the month of September.

Baffert and Asmussen have dominated the biggest races in recent years, but Parx owners and trainers have become major factors in some of the other stakes on Derby Day. In fact, Parx-based horses were first across the line in the 2022 Grade II Gallant Bob, the Grade III Turf Monster, the Grade III Greenwood Cup, and the Parx Dirt Mile. Those races will go with purses of $400,000, $250,000, $200,000, and $300,000, respectively in 2023.

Before we get to the fourth Saturday in September, we will have the Sunday, June 18, Father’s Day PTHA President’s Cup and then the Crowd Pleaser and Power By Far on June 26.

After the annual August break, there will be 11 stakes run over two days. Racing will return with the Aug. 21 Pa. Day at the Races which will feature seven Pennsylvania bred stakes. The following day, the Grade III $300,000 Smarty Jones and $200,000 Cathryn Sophia will be run as the local preps for the Pa. Derby and Cotillon. There will be two other stakes that day – the Salvatore M. DeBunda Sprint and the Parx Dash.

After Pa. Derby Day, the stakes schedule will continue with the Oct. 17 M.P. Ballezzi Appreciation Mile and the Oct. 24 Jump Start. The schedule will conclude with the Nov. 28 Pennsylvania Nursery and the Wait For It and Miss Behaviour on Dec. 27.

The $1 million races for 3-year-olds colts and 3-year-old fillies obviously will have major divisional and Breeders’ Cup implications, but the great thing about all these stakes is how many will feature and be won by horses that are stabled at Parx.

That will begin Monday. Nominations for the Page McKenney include familiar local stars like Beren, Breezy Gust, and Smooth B. The Unique Bella noms include the streaking Disco Ebo, Love in the Air, and Morning Matcha, second in 2022 Cotillion.

Races for maidens, claimers and allowance types make up the daily fare that sustains the game and the people in it. The stakes races are an incentive for those who work all those hours every day getting the horses ready to run. And a trip to a stakes winner’s circle is the ultimate reward in a game that can be unyielding, but also so incredibly fulfilling.


By Dick Jerardi

Todd Pletcher, the trainer who has made an art form of winning the most significant Kentucky Derby prep races, outdid even himself this year. The man who has won the Wood Memorial and Florida Derby seven times each, the Tampa Bay Derby Derby six times, the Arkansas Derby five times, and the Blue Grass Stakes four times, will arrive at Churchill Downs with the winners of half of the “Final Six Majors” the Florida Derby (Forte), Blue Grass (Tapit Trice) and Louisiana Derby (Kingsbarns). Forte and Tapit Trice also won “Sweet 16” races in the Fountain of Youth and Tampa Bay Derby.

Forte, the 2-year-old champion, is, without much argument, the most accomplished horse Pletcher has ever brought to the Derby with those two wins in Florida this year to go along with the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Breeders’ Futurity and Hopeful last year. That’s four Grade I wins and a Grade II, a serious resume heading to May.

But it’s not all Pletcher as the top 3-year-olds begin to congregate in Louisville.

Armony’s Angel never won a race in eight starts for trainer Kenny McPeek, but that won’t matter when her Pennsylvania bred son of Classic Empire named Angel of Empire takes his spot in the Derby starting gate. The powerful winner of the Arkansas Derby and Risen Star has four wins in five main-track starts and has improved his Beyer figure in each of his starts for trainer Brad Cox.

No Bob Baffert for one more Derby, but the west coast has another very serious contender in Santa Anita Derby winner Practical Move. The colt has been perfect with blinkers, winning the Los Alamitos Futurity and San Felipe before holding on to win the SA Derby by a nose for trainer Tim Yakteen. It is unclear if second place finisher Mandarin Hero will make the field because he is so far down the points list, but his huge effort flattered the form of fellow Japanese horse and UAE Derby winner Derma Sotogake.

Historically, horses coming directly from Dubai have been Derby throwouts. But as it’s becoming more clear just how advanced Japanese horses and training methods are, the Dubai thing may be less relevant. Derma Sotogake looks like a serious contender.

The same cannot be said of 59-1 Wood Memorial winner Lord Miles. The colt had been badly beaten in the Holy Bull and Tampa Bay Derby. The Wood was slowly run, and there is also this – there have been 40 Derby horses that started in the Wood over the last 20 years, and none has finished better than fourth.

So, Forte, Tapit Trice, and Kingsbarns for Pletcher, along with Angel of Empire, Practical Move, and Derma Sotogake, would be among the most serious contenders. I would add Blue Grass second Verifying to the mix. A year after, there was a Derby meltdown pace that set it up for 80-1 Rich Strike, Forte, Tapit Trice, Angel of Empire and Practical Move are closers or mid-pack runners. Horses like Verifying, Kingsbarns, and Derma Sotogake, with the speed to stay out of the traffic, could be more dangerous in the kind of scenario where the pace is not so hot.

Bottom line, 50 years after Secretariat won what remains the fastest Derby ever run, we have no 3-year-olds that are going to be breaking any track records. We do have an evenly matched, consistent group that should make for a fascinating run up to and running of Derby 149.


By Dick Jerardi

By the end of summer, Jamie Ness likely will become the 16th North American trainer with 4,000 wins. He won 326 races (second in N.A.) in 2022 and, for the first time, his stable exceeded $10 million in earnings. He has 54 horses at Parx where he has won the last three training titles. He has 29 horses at Laurel where he just won the winter meet title. He has another 31 horses at Fair Hill. Counting horses in his rehab facility and farm in Chesapeake City, Md. Ness figures he is “feeding over 250 horses’’ at the moment.

Saturday, for just the third time in his career that has included 15,750 starters, Ness will be in the paddock with one of his horses getting ready for a Grade I race. That would be Repo Rocks in the 7-furlong $300,000 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct.

“It’s huge,” Ness said. “The horse has been good to me. We’ve been preparing for this race for six weeks. It’s nice to have a horse that you can point to a race and work backwards to it. A lot of my horses, we’ve got to hope the race goes and we’re scrambling. Our preparation has been great. I think we’re ready to go.’’

According to Equibase, Ness had won exactly two graded stakes by the end of 2022 – the Grade III Arlington Handicap in 2017 at Arlington Park with Ghost Hunter (who ran next in the Grade I Arlington Million) and the Grade III Greenwood Cup in 2021 at Parx with Magic Michael. His other Grade I starter was Sneaking Uponyouin the 2010 Nearctic at Woodbine. It’s not that Ness is incapable of winning the big races; he simply has not had the kind of stock that wins those races.

Repo Rocks had 29 starts when he came to Ness’s barn last fall after two nowhere finishes in a stake at Parx and another at Aqueduct. The gelding had some back paper, including races where he earned high 90s Beyer figures. He had finished a solid third behind Life is Good and Speaker’s Corner in a Belmont Park stake. He was three times graded stakes placed. So the ability was there.

Well, Repo Rocks has raced four times for Ness, with four stakes wins, including a third graded stake when he blew away the field in the Grade III Toboggan at Aqueduct, getting a 111 Beyer. He won two $75,000 stakes at Parx before that and followed up his Toboggan with a dominant win in the $125,000 Stymie after overcoming serious early traffic trouble. His Beyers in the other three wins were 96, 97, and 97, figures he had done before, but not consistently. Park jockey Andrew Wolfsont has ridden him in all four races and will ride again in the Carter.

“I had a few horses for Steve (Fox of Double B Racing Stables) up in New York,” Ness said.

So Fox sent Repo Rocks to Ness, hoping the trainer could find a way to re-capture Repo Rocks’ best form.

“He said, see if you can turn him around a little bit; I think the horse is really good,” Ness remembered Fox saying. “He got here. He’s a difficult horse to train, but I said: ‘you know what, big boy, we’re going to train hard.’ He’s taken it and loved it, so I think that’s kind of a big reason for his kind of turnaround. I train on him hard, and whatever I give him, he wants more.”

On the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s legendary Triple Crown,  Repo Rocks, like Secretariat, just happens to be a Virginia bred. But, quite unlike Secretariat, it took Repo Rocks 11 tries to break his maiden. That was for trainer Tom Morley who had claimed the horse from Bill Mott for $40,000. Juan Vasquez claimed the horse for $40,000 from Morley for owner Fox. Then, Gregory DiPrima took over. Now, it’s Ness and Repo Rocks has become one of the fastest horses in the East.

That 111 Beyer was the outlier in this four-race run. “I obviously didn’t see that number coming, but I see him breeze and I’m like, this horse is good,” Ness said.

Repo Rocks has been way better than good for Ness. The trainer isn’t looking beyond the Carter, but said, “I’d love to be able to plan (for other big races) in the future…Everybody in the barn is excited. I’m not nervous or anything. The horse is ready. We’re just excited. I can’t wait for Saturday.”

Only three trainers in the top 100 list for all-time wins also have a win rate of 25 percent – Tom Amoss, Chad Brown and Jamie Ness.

“The key for me is in 2017, I moved to my farm in Maryland,” said Ness, who is no stranger to huge years with 395 wins in 2012 and 330 in 2011. “With racing in the Mid-Atlantic, I’ve got Laurel, Delaware, Parx. I set up an infrastructure to be in all three places. We move horses back and forth…I bought a farm where I live. I bought the farm next to me for rehab and getting the horse off the layoff. I have horses at Sharp Farm. My 2-year-olds are there with somebody. We have a lot of irons in the fire. You got this many things going on and the wins kind of add up.”

They do, but some wins matter more than others. The Carter is such a big deal that Ness’s wife and two daughters (10 and 8) are coming to Aqueduct Saturday for their first trips to New York. That night, they will all be staying at a hotel in Manhattan.

 Now, all Repo Rocks has to do is win – again.


By Dick Jerardi

When I got my Hall of Fame ballot a month ago, I was hardly surprised to see that Smarty Jones again was not a finalist. Nor was I surprised to see that Rags to Riches was again a finalist.

The argument against Smarty Jones is longevity – just nine races. It is not an unreasonable argument. So how then can one explain Rags to Riches as a finalist? She had just seven races.

When I wrote a letter to the Hall of Fame committee a few years ago nominating Smarty Jones, I said that  I was: “a bit baffled as to how Rags to Riches has been a finalist in recent years and not Smarty Jones. Their accomplishments are not even close.’’

Smarty Jones was the first unbeaten Kentucky Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977, won the Preakness by the largest margin (11 1/2 lengths) in the history of the race, raced nine times from early November 2003 until early June 2004 without a break, had a four-race series of Beyer figures – Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness – 112, 109, 107, 118 – unmatched by a 3-year-old in the 21st century.

Rags to Riches raced seven times, six against fillies. She was fourth in her June 2006 debut, did not race again until the following January and then reeled off five consecutive wins – a maiden special weight and four Grade I stakes, the Las Virgenes, the Santa Anita Oaks, the Kentucky Oaks and the Belmont Stakes where she beat eventual two-time Horse of the Year Curlin by a head, a tremendous accomplishment where she earned a 107 Beyer, one of just two triple-digit Beyers. Her final race came in the September 2007 Grade I Gazelle when she finished second at 2-5. She had a terrific 2007, but nothing remotely like the year Smarty Jones had in 2004.

In 2004, Rock Hard Ten, Borrego, Eddington, Purge and Imperialism raced against Smarty Jones a combined 12 times. They finished a combined 147 lengths behind him, an average of 12 lengths per race.  Smarty Jones did not just win his races; the colt dominated them. And he was crushing some very accomplished horses. In 2005, The Smarty Five won six Grade I races and four Grade II races. Rock Hard Ten won the Strub, Santa Anita Handicap and Goodwood. Borrego won the Pacific Classic and Jockey Club Gold Cup. Eddington won the Gulfstream Park Handicap and Pimlico Special.

Also in 2004, the winners of the Haskell, Jim Dandy and West Virginia Derby raced against Smarty Jones a combined six times and were beaten by a combined 78 lengths. Purge won all four of his races without Smarty Jones. In three tries against Smarty, Purge was a combined 47 lengths behind.

Other than Curlin, the horses Rags to Riches beat or beat her are unrecognizable. She was never dominant, her five wins by a combined 15 lengths.

Smarty Jones won his eight races by a combined 47 1/2 lengths. The Belmont Stakes was his ninth race at nine different distances at six race tracks. In his only loss, the Belmont Stakes, the colt was beaten by in-race circumstances much more than by winner Birdstone. In fact, it was somewhat similar to what happened to Triple Crown winner American Pharoah when he finished second in the 2015 Travers. Two horses were taken out of their normal running styles to try to get Smarty Jones beat. Those two, Eddington and Rock Hard Ten, were well beaten, but were a great aid in Birdstone’s victory. It is worth noting that after his Travers loss, American Pharoah raced once more, winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic with a 120 Beyer Figure.

There was justifiable criticism for how the retirement announcement was handled in the late summer of 2004. As the only writer who was there every morning in the weeks leading up to the Belmont Stakes and the weeks after the race, I made it a point to explain to the committee that this was not the same horse after the race as before. Most days, he could not even get into a gallop. Something clearly was wrong. Turned out the colt had significant cartilage loss that was going to prevent him from training or running again. That, however, was not known until several months after the retirement announcement.

Longevity obviously is an understandable issue for the committee. And nine races does not qualify as long no matter how you define it. But those nine races over seven months qualifies as one of the most incredible runs by any horse in the modern history of the sport.

I do understand why Smarty Jones has not been deemed worthy by the committee of being a finalist, but it would be interesting if he would make the final list and a larger electorate could consider his merits. But I remain upset by the continuing presence of Rags to Riches on the ballot when she has been rejected by that larger electorate year after year.