When they moved the Pa. Derby off Labor Day, track officials were hoping that top 3-year-olds that became marquee names during the Triple Crown and ran in the Travers would use the race as a final prep for the Breeders' Cup. Well, they have not been lucky with the Triple Crown horses, especially this year when the attrition rate has been overwhelming. But they are getting the Travers winner, actually the Travers winners.
Last Saturday's historic Travers dead heat between Alpha and Golden Ticket will be settled in the Pa. Derby. Both horses have been committed to the race. When the races were just 9 days apart, no Travers horse was coming to Bensalem. Now, they can come. And they are coming.
Last year, the Pa. Derby got Belmont Stakes winner Ruler On Ice. One of these years, the race will attract the Kentucky Derby or Preakness winner. Or both. This year, unfortunately, Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another was retired the day before the Belmont Stakes. Then, Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags, with all the local connections, was retired. More recently, it was announced that Bodemeister, runner-up in the Derby and Preakness, has been retired. Hansen, the 2-year-old champion, is unlikely to race again. Just when it looked like exciting Haskell winner Paynter might be coming to the Pa. Derby, he got sick, seemed to recover and got sick again.
So, Sept. 22 could have been better. But it will still be better than anything this track or this state has ever seen.
The Derby is likely to get a large, competitive field. The Cotillion won't get as big a field because it will be hard for the racing office to get fillies to run against Questing, who may very well be the country's best 3-year-old of any sex. She was totally dominant when she won the Aug. 18 Alabama Stakes at Saratoga. You could make a reasonable case that she is the most exciting horse in the country. And she will be at Parx, along with stablemate Alpha, both owned by the powerful Godolphin Stable, overseen by Dubai's ruling family.
That Saturday will feel like a mini-Breeders' Cup day because the stakes races will come one after another, with some of the country's top jockeys and trainers at the track for the day.
Some other Pa. Derby runners could be determined by the results of Monday's $350,000 Smarty Jones Stakes, a Grade III for the first time. Prospective, winner of the Tampa Bay Derby and Ohio Derby, is expected to be entered for the race Friday. The Michael Matz-trained Teeth of the Dog and terrific local horse Traffic Light are also expected to run.
Entries will also be taken Friday for Monday's $350,000 Turf Monster and its companion race for females, the $200,000 Turf Amazon.
Racing secretary Sal Sinatra expects nine of the 10 highweights for the Monster, including last year's winner Ben's Cat and two-time Monster winner Chamberlain Bridge.
"It will be the best Turf Monster ever," Sinatra promised.
"Pennsylvania's Day at the Races" will be held on Saturday, Sept. 8, followed by Owners' Day on Sept. 15, featuring the $250,000 PTHA President's Cup.
There will be five stakes worth a total of $400,000 for Pa. Breds on Pa. Day at the Races. Since the slot bill was signed in 2004, the purses have exploded. So has the breeding fund disbursement. It was $65,000 in 1974, $6.8 million in 2006 just as slots were coming on line, and more than $20 million in 2011. That number would include money for breeder and stallion awards, owner bonuses and races restricted to Pa. Breds, all incentives to foal horses in the state, build new breeding farms and preserve open space.
The Pa. Bred program was even enough to bring the greatest Pa. Bred of them all back home. Smarty Jones has just finished his second breeding season in the state, first at a farm near York and now at the Northview Stallion Station, a showplace farm in Peach Bottom (Lancaster County) that could rival many of the top farms in Kentucky for ambience and creature comforts.
One could make a pretty strong case that none of this happens without Smarty Jones winning the 2004 Derby and Preakness. In fact, then-Gov. Rendell has credited the colt with pushing the slots bill over the top that summer.
And here we are 8 years later, with the track that began as Keystone, morphed into Philadelphia Park and now Parx Racing, just across the parking lot from the state's most successful casino, already expanded less than 3 years after opening, hosting a day with two seven-figure races, something that Belmont Park or Churchill Downs or Santa Anita has not done, except with Breeders' Cup money behind them.
If you were around when the track opened on Nov. 4, 1974, or during the often bleak days of the 1980s and 1990s, it is all kind of surreal. But it will all be quite real on Sept. 22.
Contact Dick Jerardi at email@example.com.