Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Accidental Stakes Race

I made a gentlemen’s bet with TJ on Saturday and lost. I assured him that he’d probably get an email from the NTRA on Sunday announcing the guests who would appear on a national teleconference advancing the newly minted Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby.

Alas, no email was forthcoming, and neither was there the oft-presented Tuesday teleconference before major racing events. Saturday is the day Pennsylvania Thoroughbred fans look forward to every year.

Maybe somebody dropped a dime to the industry’s public relations organ that Jorge Navarro, aka “the juice man,” was about to drop the name Game Over into the Penn Derby entry box.

Or maybe they wanted to save the industry further advancement if tomorrow, Wednesday, the New Jersey Racing Commission ups the punishment ante for Navarro and his foul-mouthed owner, Randal Gindi, fined $5,000 by New Jersey stewards.

But the Pennsylvania Derby? With apologies to Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen, who adapted Walter Tevis’s The Hustler to the silver screen: “This is Pennsylvania, mister. Ever heard of Fast Murray Rojas?”

Even if Navarro were not invited to participate at Parx, there could have been some embarrassing questions asked of the other trainers, owners or jockeys on a national hookup. The fact there was no presser enabled NTRA to luck out of a shameful situation.

Where the NTRA missed out was an opportunity to promote the country’s leading three-year-old filly, Abel Tasman, who will leave from post 9 beneath Mike Smith as an 8-5 early line choice to win the G1 Cotillion, which drew 11 fillies including a coupled entry.

But she won’t be the only California-based Bob Baffert-trained three-year-old on the plane. West Coast, arguable leader of the three-year-old colt division, is also an 8-5 early line choice in a race that looks as salty as the one West Coast won, Saratoga’s Derby of Midsummer.

Among West Coast’s nine rivals are beaten Haskell favorite Timeline (5-1), compromised at the start of that Grade 1 and involved in a contentious pace duel on a tiring Monmouth oval July 30. Previously, he was an undefeated in four starts including a pair of Grade 3s. Javier Castellano rides for Chad Brown.

In the stall next door is the blooming Outplay (12-1), who won Saratoga’s restricted Curlin Stakes at the Pa. Derby distance by nearly six impressive front-running lengths with Johnny Velasquez again in the boot for Todd Pletcher. But wait, there’s more.

Immediately to the favorite’s outside in slip #5 is Irap (3-1), significantly wide on both turns in the Travers and forced into making a premature move on the final turn. Irap finished third, beaten 5-1/2 lengths, and gets a two-pound weight pull from the favorite.

Add Irish War Cry, also hindered by the closer-friendly Monmouth surface, who chased the pace from close range after a troubled start while making a difficult turnback from the mile and a half Belmont Stakes in which he earned a lifetime best figure on many scales.

Baffert won this race with Bayern three years ago, Brown won last year’s renewal with ill-fated Connect, and Nick Zito, who won this race three times, has entered Giuseppe the Great (20-1), who starts from post 10 with Luis Saez, reuniting with the Jim Dandy runnerup.

We are a little surprised that Baffert chose to run back in four weeks when he could have prepped for the Classic at Santa Anita next month, but apparently decided he prefers a longer layup into the Breeders’ Cup that Saturday’s race provides.

Six weeks spacing has proven to be a boon to both the Pennsylvania Derby and Cotillion.

Neither West Coast nor his trainer need to carry a racetrack with them. The colt has won on four disparate surfaces while the filly, shipping in fresh, will attempt to win at a seventh venue, having won thrice out west, once at Churchill, Belmont and Saratoga in July.

While the G3 Gallant Bob, Saturday’s 9th race, is competitive per usual and an interesting start to a graded-stakes Pick 3, we’ll pass, as we never make it a habit to support Parx with its usurious takeout rates.

There are other attractive stakes on a well-stocked 13-race card but we will be avoid Parx, a good prep for shunning Keeneland's opener. With the exception of Saratoga horses-to-watch, we will not wager on any Keeneland feature, as appealing as those races may be. HRI supports the message behind the HANA boycott.

With contrition to Sonny Corleone, “they hit us, so we hit them back.”

Written by John Pricci

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