Pa. Derby a Grade II race, but the field is top grade

Posted: September 01, 2007

Major stakes races fall into two distinct categories. There is the race with a star, which usually results in a small field, because trainers of other horses know they can't win. Or there is the race with a number of good, competitive horses, which makes for really interesting wagering possibilities.

Monday's $1 million Pennsylvania Derby is the latter. So is the supporting feature, the $200,000 Turf Monster. The Derby attracted 11 horses with no obvious favorite. The Monster got a field of 12.

"We're trying to get a Grade I winner here," said Sal Sinatra, the track's director of racing. "We think we've got a bunch of future Grade I winners. Most of the guys I talked to say it's a very competitive field."

It is definitely that.

West Virginia Derby winner Zanjero is the 3-1 morning line favorite. Seven others are listed between 4-1 and 8-1. Todd Pletcher has two horses - Sam P. and Illinois Derby and Gotham Stakes winner Cowtown Cat. Calvin Borel, Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense's jockey and the best racing story of 2007, is coming in to ride Moyer's Pond.

Imawildandcrazyguy, fourth in the Kentucky Derby and Haskell, will run from the back of the pack. Bwana Bull, second by a nose in the West Virginia Derby, has come east again from his Southern California base. Lexington Stakes and Lone Star Derby winner Slew's Tizzy, was not close in the West Virginia Derby or Belmont Stakes, but obviously has some back form. Robby Albarado who won the Preakness on Curlin, will ride the colt.

Lightly raced Timber Reserve could be getting good at the right time. Xchanger came up quite short in the Preakness and Haskell, but has been very effective when not overmatched. Philly native Patrick McBurney, a longtime assistant to New Jersey mainstay John Forbes, trains the entry of Cable Boy and Get Serious.

"Any time you get more than five or six in a graded race anymore, it's an accomplishment," Sinatra said. "This field is well worth betting on."

The Grade II Pa. Derby is Pennsylvania's first $1 million race. After the draw yesterday at the track, both Sinatra and Joe Wilson, the track's new chief operating officer, said they don't want to stop at that.

"Hopefully, at some point I can get it to a Grade I," Sinatra said. "That changes the whole landscape of the race itself, because now you get the big horses looking for the Grade I status."

Wilson, too, would like to see the Derby get more status in the wider world of horse racing.

"Our goal is to get this race to a Grade I," he said.

The Derby (post time 5:35 p.m.) is at 1 1/8 mile on the main track. The Monster is 5 furlongs on the grass.

The Monster's purse was doubled, and it was moved from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

There are almost no opportunities to run grass dash specialists for that kind of money. Which is why they got a full field of 12.

Borel will ride the terrific filly Unbridled Sydney, who will take on the boys. Don't blink, as the race will take around 57 seconds or so.

The Derby will take about 50 seconds longer. The race is back after last year's was canceled because of construction on the first and third floors for slot machines. No doubt, some racing fans will find their way to the slots Monday. And some slots players likely will emerge to check out some horses.

The building almost certainly will feel crowded. Management hopes many fans hang in the picnic area outside, where they will be able to watch the races on a jumbo screen.

Sometime in the future, the slots will move to a standalone building. Racing will become the sole tenant of the old building again. And the Pa. Derby, with potentially a $2 million purse, could get the best of both worlds - a few stars and a large field. *

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