June 7, 2014 seems like a long time ago. In the Northeast, kids were still in school, summer hadn’t officially started and the Saratoga racing season was still six weeks away. On that Saturday evening, the three year old colt, California Chrome, was attempting to become the 12th horse to win the elusive Triple Crown. As we know, Big Sandy, aka Belmont Park, squashed those dreams and the result was a fourth place finish followed by a post-race tirade extraordinaire by Steve Coburn, the co-owner of the colt.
Fast forward to fall. As the leaves get set to turn, California Chrome is ready to run again, returning in the Grade II, $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing in Bensalem, PA, outside of Philadelphia. In the 105 days since his last race a lot has happened. The Haskell, the Travers and the beginning and the end of the Saratoga and Del Mar meets. Another three year old, Shared Belief is the new hot thing, still undefeated and still winning in dominant fashion. Despite not racing, many consider Chrome to be the front runner for at the very least, 3 year old Horse of the Year. A win at Parx will go a long way in his favor, but to me, he still has to work to do. He still needs to show his mettle the rest of the year to garner those honors and perhaps overall Horse of the Year ones as well.
The Horse Racing season is long and peculiar. It starts in the dead of the winter with the 3 year olds setting their sights on the Kentucky Derby and a possible Triple Crown run. Then, there’s that dead spot where some horses rest, while others move forward and begin their racing seasons. While Chrome rested, Shared Belief got healthy and started winning. VE Day emerged from nowhere to win the Travers and other horses fell completely off the stage.
Now, in the fall, everybody wants their horse to get in peak form. The winter-spring horses like Chrome are trying to get their groove back while the VE Days are trying to maintain and move forward. Some, like Pa lice Malice and Princess of Sylmar have retired and others like the filly Untapable are trying to re-establish their greatness. It’s an amazing medley, an amazing mix with the ultimate goal of being in top condition for the Breeder’s Cup, which will commence October 31 and November 1 at Santa Anita Park. Wise Dan, the two- time Horse of the Year, returned to racing at the end of the Saratoga season with a stirring win in the Bernard Baruch and he now has his sights set on Santa Anita.
The Pennsylvania Derby is the highlight on a great day of racing at Parx. In addition to the Derby, the Cotillion for the fillies will be run in what is a highly anticipated duel between Untapable and Stopchargingmaria. In fact, there may be more intrigue in that race than the Derby. Untapable looked unbeatable before taking on the boys at the Haskell where she finished well back. Will going back to her class suit her well? And, for Stopchargingmaria, her win in the Alabama at Saratoga was a good one, despite a very slow time of2:05 and change for 1 ¼ miles. Is she the real deal? Can she move forward?
Despite all this, the star of the weekend is California Chrome. He looks ready, drilling six furlongs in 1:13 in his workout prior to the race. He arrived in Bensalem looking regal, strong and with a beautiful shiny coat. I always worry if the layoff—105 days—is too long? Can a horse really get back at it after resting that long? And, does Chrome have to win or just run a representative race to get his groove back? No matter what happens one thing will be clear and that is win or lose, the pundits will overreact. If he wins, the hype machine returns in full force; if he doesn’t, the skeptics will be out, stating that the layoff was too much, that it killed his momentum.
The field is strong. Bayern is a legitimate threat. He won the seven furlong Woody Stephens on Belmont Stakes day and then won the Haskell in July. Sure, his Travers performance was awful, but I still believe that even though he may be best suited for the mile and shorter, he can get 1 1/8 miles in the Pennsylvania Derby. The biggest question is if he wins or runs extremely well, does Baffert set his sights on the Breeder’s Cup Classic at 1 ¼ miles?
Candy Boy and Tapiture are live wires and even though Noble Moon, Classic Giancroll are 15-1 (morning line odds), they can’t be dismissed. Bayern figures to take the pace out and Chrome is a stalker and if the pace is too fast, that may help the late running Classic Giancroll. This is likely the last time that these colts will face only three year olds. After Saturday, it will be time to take on the older horses.
As mentioned, this is a major score for Parx. They have always offered incentives for winners of Triple Crown races to come to Parx and race in the Derby. For coming east, the connections of California Chrome get $100,000 and another $100,000 goes to trainer Art Sherman, so there were 200,000 pretty good reasons to put the champion colt on an airplane. This is the first time a Kentucky Derby winner has raced at Parx. Smarty Jones was the likely candidate in 2004, but an injury forced the Philly Flyer into retirement before the Pennsylvania Derby
It will be interesting to see what the crowd will be. The weather will cooperate with a forecast calling for 79 degrees and no rain and Philadelphia likes an event as much as any other big city, so the table is set for big time potential in the Delaware Valley.
The next two weeks should be quite compelling in Horse Racing. On September 27, Shared Belief runs in the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita and Belmont Park hosts the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The winners of these three races will likely head to Santa Anita and the Breeder’s Cup thinking big.