By Papo Morales, AmWager
Race 11 Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby
A full field of twelve three-year-old’s running for the winner’s share of $1.25 million in the pinnacle race on the Parx card, the Pennsylvania Derby. First run in 1979, the Pennsylvania Derby has had some notable winners including Broad Brush, Dixieland Band, Summer Squall, Harlan’s Holiday and last year Frosted.
This year’s rendition might be the best ever with the Derby winner Nyquist (5-2) facing 11 other talented horses, including his rival Exaggerator (9-2) who has won two straight head to head matchups, albeit on tracks labeled sloppy. The race goes deeper than the two morning line favorites however, as Gun Runner (6-1), Cupid (5-1), Connect (12-1), and Awesome Slew (10-1) all add substance to this Grade 2 event.
Let’s begin this conversation analyzing the pace. On paper there appears to be a lot of early heat in the race. Cupid, for trainer Bob Baffert, has reeled off two consecutive grade 2wins using his early speed to run his foes into the ground. By the second call in those races he was ahead by open lengths, a key angle, as if Cupid gets comfortable on the front end he will be hard to reel in.
However, in this race I believe he will feel pace pressure from Summer Revolution (8-1), Awesome Slew (10-1), and Hit It Once More (20-1), who will be forced to show early speed being marooned out in post 12. The Parx main track does tend to play kind to speed but with three or four horses vying for the early lead, the front runners may compromise each other’s chances. I would not toss them altogether but will relegate them to the lower positions in the exotics.
As far as win contenders go, I will play against Exaggerator. I’m not saying he won’t run well in this race but I cannot see a scenario where he crosses the wire first. That is not a knock against the son of Curlin but I believe his best performances come on sloppy or muddy tracks. His four graded stakes wins have all come on off-tracks and the course at Parx on Saturday is expected to be fast. He did not run a bit when he finished 11th last time out in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes . The early fractions of that race were quick and should have played into his closing style yet he failed to fire. He did finish second to Nyquist in the Kentucky Derby but the Churchill track had moisture in it as a result of a rain storm an hour before the race. Exaggerator is a great horse on an off-track but just might be a good horse on a fast one, and for that reason I see him only getting minor share.
Connect, for trainer Chad Brown, is interesting in this race. He too failed to show up in the Travers Stakes but had a plausible excuse. After the race, he was scoped and it was determined he had a lung infection. If you give him a mulligan for that performance, then you have a lightly raced colt that has won three of his last four races. Brown has always been high on Connect and I don’t believe he would have entered him in this race if he thought he did not have a shot. He will likely have to run his finest performance to date to win, but I don’t’ believe we have seen the best of the colt yet.
Nyquist is a legitimate win contender and I am eager to see him back in the starting gate. He is coming into this race off an extended layoff after finishing fourth in the Haskell and third in the Preakness. In both those races he was sent to the lead with a no abandon strategy and set blistering fractions on muddy tracks. Whether it was O’Neill’s (his trainer) instructions or Gutierrez’s decision, it ultimately did not work and we’ll have to chalk it up as a learning experience for both of them.
After the Haskell, Nyquist was given some time off as he was going through a growth spurt. In fact, according to O’Neill, Nyquist has grown several inches over the last six weeks. In order to keep him sharp during the layoff, O’Neill had Nyquist train in a pool – a form of aqua therapy that helps maintain mass with minimal stress on the bones. I love his workout pattern coming in with four works at the one-mile distance. These are not speed works but rather stamina building ones that should have Nyquist ready for this race.
As for my key horse, I landed on Gun Runner. The Candy Ride colt has done little wrong in his career, as he has won five of nine career starts and only finished off-the-board twice – with both those races on tracks labeled sloppy. Gun Runner has tactical speed and, like Connect and Nyquist, should be stalking the pace. He finished third in the Travers and though he was beaten 15 lengths in a freakish performance by Arrogate, Gun Runner was almost four lengths clear of the rest of the field. He also finished third in the Kentucky Derby, a sign the mile and quarter distance may be just a bit beyond his scope.
The cutback to a mile and an eighth should suit him and Geroux has been red hot in the saddle. At his morning line price, Gun Runner offers good value and I’m hoping he brings his best bullet to fire.