By John Piesen
On any other mid-September weekend, the Eagles would monopolize the city of Philadelphia's sports pages and sports-talk shows. But not this weekend. Sure,
Sunday's NFL match of the unbeaten Eagles vs. the arch-rival Redskins (or is it Washington?) will get its fair share of attention, but there's bigger game in town.
On Saturday afternoon, at the north end of the City of Brotherly Love, the Pax (nee Philly Park), the biggest little casino in town, will play host to the first
Philadelphia appearance ever by a Derby winner. Yes, we're talking the Kentucky Derby winner.
The race is the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby for3-year-olds, and the one-horse in a field of eight going a mile and a furlong is none other than Kentucky Derby (and Preakness) winner California Chrome, who made the round trip from his left coast diggings for the race.
In doing so, Chrome will become the first Kentucky Derby winner in history to race at Pax (nee Philly Park). Spend a Buck (1985) was on schedule to make the Pa. Derby, but got hurt and was retired. Smarty Jones (2004) -- yes, that Smarty Jones -- was being pointed for the Pa. Derby, also got jurt, and he too never raced again.
Both were local horses,and Philly Park seemed the natural place to run. But California Chrome, as his name suggests, is based in California, and the only reasons his connections chose to make the 6,000-mile cross-country trip were 1) No Shared Belief, and 2) the little matter of a $200,000 appearance fee.
Now there's the minor matter of having to win the race. After all, how embarrassing would it look for the most famous active racehorse in the world to get beat at Pax (nee Philly Park)?
But it could happen. Really.
Five reasons -- or any combination thereof -- come to mind:
1) The 105-day layoff.
2) The fact that eight of the last 10 horses to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and lost the Belmont, went on to lose his next start.
3) CC drew the one-hole, a very tricky spot for a horse who has gate problems.
4) Trainer Sherman has made it perfectly clear that he is using the Pa. Derby merely as a prep race for the Breeders' Cup Classic, and
5) The field, notably Bayern and Tapiture, comes up much stronger than originally anticipated.
I'll be the first to admit that I thought at first the race would be a walkover. Now I'm not so sure. Not sure at all.
One thing I am sure of is that the mere appearance of California Chrome in the race guarantees that largest crowd in the history of Philly Park...although
learning the exact numbers will be a challenge.
What's more, there will be no telecast, save for TVG and/or HRTV, and, as far as I can tell, there is zero coverage of the race in the New York media some 90
miles up the Turnpike.
The race, which will go as race 12 of 13 at 5:40 p.m., however can be viewed at various web and simulcast sites. My picks will be up and running online and on the world-famous John Piesen Hot Line 1-888-612-2283
You can pretty much assume I'll try to knock down the favorite.
The key to the race no doubt is Bayern.
If allowed to get loose on the lead, and the Pax is, if nothing else, a speed-biased racetrack, he'll be long gone. Trainer Baffert worked him in :58 and change for this race. Figure Bayern to get loose this time, unlike in the Travers, in which, as the favorite, going 10 furlongs, he had the target on his back. In this case that will be Chrome with said target.
Then there's Tapiture. He's been a runner for Team Asmussen from day one, and he exits one of the most amazing performances of the year. Hopelessly blocked behind two horses midstretch of the West Virginia Derby, jockey Napravnik snatched him up, wheeled him out and around, and got up in the last jump. Vicar's In Trouble, third in that race, came right back to win the Super Derby by a city block.
Then there's Protonico from the Pletcher barn.
This guy exits a win over the track in the Smarty Jones Stakes. Prior to that, he finished third in the Curlin, beaten less than a length by V E Day, who a month later won the Travers.
Jockey Bravo rode Protonico for the Toddster in the Smarty Jones as a sub for Javier Castellano. Javier is back aboard for the Pa. Derby.
A half-hour before the Pa. Derby comes the Cotillion, a $1 million race for the best 3-year-old fillies in the land at 1 1/16 miles. Unlike the Grade Two Pa. Derby, the Cotillion is a Grade One. Go figure.
Trainers Asmussen and Pletcher will run the furst two choices in the Cotillion -- Untapable and Stopchargingmaria, respectively...with an Eclipse Award likely hanging in the balance.
The two chalks must overcome the widest posts in the field of nine, a tough hurdle in view of the short run to the first turn.
Then there is Sweet Reason, a three-time Grade One winner, but all at one turn, and the late-developing Cassatt from the Porter-Jones team which gave us Eight Belles and Horse of the Year Havre de Grace.
Cassatt last time out overcame a bobbling start to win the Monmouth Oaks by a pole, ascends in class and weight, but benefits from the inside draw.
A possible upsetter is Joint Return, who exits a fast-closing second for John Servis in the Alabama.
Conspicuous by her absence is Artemis Agrotera, who opts to stay on Long Island to run against older in the 300K Gallant Bloom Handicap at Belmont. She's the only 3-year-old in a field of six.
Finally, happy trails to Suffolk Downs. the iconic Boston-based track that was shut down this week after 80 years of providing New England's best racing.
Thanks for tuning in. Have a grest weekend, go Buccos, and see you back here next week for a look at the Jockey Club Gold Cup theatrics at Belmont Park.