Pennsylvania Derby firmly on national horse-racing map

PENNSYLVANIA DERBY HORSE RACE
Connect (4) with jockey Javier Castellano winning last year’s Pennsylvania Derby.

Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown, and Bob Baffert are the dominant big-race trainers in America, the first two from New York and Baffert from Southern California. They also know their way to Parx Racing in Bensalem — Pletcher and Brown on a semi-regular basis, and all of them for the biggest day of the year at the track.

Each will be represented Saturday in the Pennsylvania Derby: Baffert with favored West Coast, Pletcher with the speedy Outplay, and Brown with the very talented Timeline. Pletcher has three fillies in the Cotillion that day, although one or more might scratch. Baffert has Cotillion favorite Abel Tasman.

Track officials were hoping for Pletcher’s Derby winner, Always Dreaming, and Brown’s Preakness winner, Cloud Computing, but both horses have yet to come close to duplicating that form since their wins. Pletcher was considering Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit for the Pa. Derby, but the horse has a bruised foot that has him out of training.

Both Pletcher and Brown, two of the sharpest people in the sport, are quite well aware of the big races at Parx.

“It’s that final chance to run against straight 3-year-olds for a significant purse,’’ Pletcher said one morning last month at Saratoga. “In addition to that, the timing is pretty much perfect for the Breeders’ Cup, so I think they’ve done the smart thing and positioned it properly. The purse is attractive, with some bonuses for the Triple Crown horses. I think it’s good. … It’s got everyone’s attention.’’

The bonuses are for the connections of horses that have won a Triple Crown race, the Haskell or the Travers, providing $50,000 each for the owner and trainer of those race winners. Last year, the track paid out $300,000 in bonuses when Derby winner Nyquist ran, along with Preakness and Haskell winner Exaggerator.

This year, $100,000 will be split by Baffert and owners Gary and Mary West for running Travers-winner West Coast.

“I don’t think anybody would lie about the fact that is appealing,’’ Pletcher said of the bonus.

He also said he would not alter a horse’s schedule just for the bonus, especially a Derby winner that was already worth millions as a stallion. That became a moot point this year when Always Dreaming ran so poorly in the Travers.

The bonus “is nice if it happens,’’ Pletcher said, “but it’s not a deal-maker or -breaker.”

Bottom line, he said, “it’s a legitimate race, and it’s on everybody’s calendar. They’ve done a good job of being able to attract the premier 3-year-olds. Obviously, that’s what they set out to do.’’

[Bob Baffert missed the Triple Crown but has the Pennsylvania Derby favorite.]

It was when the race was moved in 2010 from Labor Day to later in September and the bonuses were attached that it began to take off. California Chrome’s appearance in 2014 gave it national cachet. Now, it is a Grade I for the first time.

When it was brought to his attention, Brown said he was not aware of the bonus. When Brown’s Connect won the Pa. Derby last year, he was not eligible for the bonus, because he had not won any of the five designated races.

“Someone probably told me that, so I don’t want to beat them up on that,’’ Brown said of the bonus. “But I’m a guy that forgets stuff. If I’m thinking about something else and somebody says something to me, I may not remember it. I don’t want to be too hard on them. They may have told me that.’’

Before Cloud Computing ran so poorly in the Travers, Brown said, he would consider the Pennsylvania Derby for his Preakness winner.

“I like the race,’’ Brown said of the Pa. Derby.

But he hasn’t had much experience with races that have a bonus attached.

“I could never imagine a scenario where I’d manage my horses based on some personal revenue,’’ Brown said. “I’ve just never done that. I come from the school, if I just manage the horses right, I’m going to get paid somewhere some way. It’s nice. I’m not knocking the idea. It wouldn’t move the needle for me.’’

The $1 million purse and Grade I status are plenty attractive enough.  Pletcher won the 2002 Pa. Derby with Harlan’s Holiday. Baffert sent Bayern to Parx in 2014 to take on Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome. All Bayern did was break the track record for a mile and an eighth.

“I think they do a great job at Parx,’’ said Baffert, who arrived Wednesday in time to see his horses get to the stable area at Parx early that evening.

In fact, Baffert liked the overall program so much that he sent a Pennsylvania-bred horse that his wife co-owns to trainer John Servis a while back. All the appropriately named The Man has done is win six straight races this year, five of them at Parx.

“I only hire Kentucky Derby-winning trainers,’’ Baffert said, referring to Servis, the man who trained 2004 Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones. West Coast and Abel Tasman, in fact, are stabled in Servis’ barn.

This Pa. Derby will be run differently from the Travers, which West Coast won easily on the lead.

“The only reason he was on the lead in the Travers was they weren’t going that fast,’’ Baffert said. “He broke well, and [jockey Mike Smith] had him there. He’s not the kind of horse you want to send him hard to get him on the lead or anything. He just found himself on the lead.’’

The speed in the Pa. Derby is in the 1 and 2 posts, Timeline and Outplay. How they are ridden early will be the race within the race. Wood Memorial winner Irish War Cry figures to be just off the early pace, with West Coast and Irap, who has been training at Parx for two-time Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill since his third in the Travers, just behind the front of the pack.

At some point, the horses will sort themselves out, and nobody will be surprised if one of the horses brought to Parx by one of the big-name trainers ends up in the winner’s circle.