Six three-year-olds are expected to line up in the gate for this year’s Grade 1, $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing and there are no shortage of opinions among fans on who should emerge victorious. Improbable, winner of the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity last year, will probably be the public betting choice now that Maximum Security will not run, though Improbable was winless in four races this year until victorious in the Shared Belief Stakes last month in California. Considering his trainer Bob Baffert has won the last two editions of this race with West Coast and McKinzie, Improbable likely deserves that amount of respect. Mr. Money has reeled off four straight graded stakes wins including the Grade 3 Indiana Derby and Grade 3 West Virginia Derby and also is a strong contender. Spun to Run is the local hero as he won the Grade 3 Smarty Jones Stakes 19 days ago at Parx, while Grade 1 Preakness Stakes winner War of Will hopes to rebound off ninth and fifth place efforts in his two most recent races. Math Wizard has finished third and sixth, respectively, behind Mr. Money, in his two most recent starts although he was the runner-up in the Grade 3 Ohio Derby prior to that. Shanghai Superfly rounds out the field.
Mr. Money just wasn’t ready for the 3-year-old classics earlier this year but has become one of the leaders in the division and will be formidable in this year’s Pennsylvania Derby. Considering he finished seventh then fifth in his first two starts as a 3-year-old, both around two turns, it was with much confidence trainer Bret Calhoun entered Mr. Money in the Grade 3 Pat Day Mile Stakes Presented by LG and E and KU on Kentucky Derby day. That one-turn mile trip suited Mr. Money perfectly as he dominated to win by five and one-quarter lengths to earn a then career-best 104 Equibase Speed Figure. Stretching out to two-turns in the Matt Winn Stakes in June, Mr. Money was equally impressive when coasting home by six lengths, improving to a 106 figure. Showing even more improvement one month later with a 114 figure, Mr. Money won the Indiana Derby by two and one-half lengths then returned three weeks later to win the West Virginia Derby by six lengths. If this was May and this race was the Kentucky Derby rather than the Pennsylvania Derby, based on those efforts Mr. Money would be among my top contenders because he has shown tremendous acceleration with a quarter mile to run in his last four races. Most notably, in the West Virginia Derby, Mr. Money went from a head in front at the quarter pole to five lengths in front at the eighth pole. The way jockey Gabriel Saez is able to get Mr. Money to change gears at that critical stage of the race is the reason I believe Mr. Money will win the Pennsylvania Derby to earn his fifth straight graded stakes victory.
Spun to Run is the “under the radar” horse in this talented field. Among the field, he is the most familiar with the dirt track at Parx, having won three of five races here, and he comes off a career best effort and is on a pattern to improve upon it. After finishing fourth in a sprint to start his 3-year-old campaign, Spun to Run stretched out to two turns and won as he pleased in January. Returning in March, Spun to Run ran even better when drawing off by seven lengths and earning a then career-best 99 figure. Although third behind Maximum Security in the Grade 1 TVG.com Haskell Invitational Stakes at Monmouth Park with a 96 figure in his next start, when returning to his home base for the Smarty Jones Stakes on September 2, Spun to Run ran the best race of his career. The 113 figure earned is also the best last race figure in the field, although not the best earned by any horse as that belongs to Mr. Money’s 114 figure in the Indiana Derby. Nevertheless, Spun to Run was exceptionally game in the blinkers he was wearing for only the second time in the Smarty Jones as he battled head-and-head down the entire length of the stretch before asserting himself by a head on the wire. That kind of competitive spirit may serve Spun to Run nicely in the Pennsylvania Derby and as such I think he has a slight chance to upset and a big chance to be part of the exacta.
Improbable added blinkers for the Shared Belief Stakes last month in California and apparently that did the trick in getting him to win for the first time since last December. Blinkers were tried once before, in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, and it’s debatable whether they did anything to motivate the colt as he was one length behind winner Omaha Beach for the entire length of the stretch. However, after non-threatening efforts in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, the equipment change seemed to help as Improbable earned a career-best 112 figure while retaining a strong three length lead in the last eighth of a mile. Making his second start off a layoff, Improbable can take another step forward to win the Pennsylvania Derby but in my opinion he’s no more probable to win than either Mr. Money or Spun to Run and will be the much lower odds of the trio.
The rest of the Pennsylvania Derby field with their best representative figures: Math Wizard (113), War of Will (107) and Shanghai Superfly (88)
The Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series continues on NBC Sports with the Cotillion Stakes from Parx Racing on September 21. Coverage begins at 5 p.m. ET on NBC.