The $1,250,000 Pennsylvania Derby will be run for the 40th time on Saturday. Though this race still carries only Grade 2 status, today’s field is undoubtedly one of Grade 1 quality. The first three finishers in this year’s Kentucky Derby—Nyquist, Exaggerator, and Gun Runner—will all be in the starting gate, along with nine other talented rivals who are all looking to upend the leaders of this division heading into the fall.
The Pace Projector is predicting a fast pace, which should come as no surprise given the amount of speed signed on.
Confirmed frontrunner Cupid (#5) and Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist (#9) are predicted to be the two contesting the lead. Yet even though Nyquist has been ridden as a frontrunner in his last two starts, his connections have expressly stated that they are taking him off the pace today. But not to worry! Fellow speedsters Awesome Slew (#1) and Summer Revolution (#3) should both be gunning towards the front from the rail, and even Hit It Once More (#12) could be forwardly placed as he comes off two straight wire-to-wire stakes wins. A hot pace up front still seems very likely.
Let’s go through the field:
#1, Awesome Slew (10/1):
What do you do with the horse that won the local prep race, the Smarty Jones? He was certainly impressive that day as he drew off to a runaway victory while earning a massive 121 speed figure, which, if taken at face value, would suggest that he’s a top contender in this race. However, I have some reservations. First of all, our bias indicator suggests that the dirt surface at Parx was somewhat speed-favoring on Smarty Jones day (note the race rating box color-coded pink), which would have aided this runner. Furthermore, his prior starts at Monmouth would seem to suggest that he’s a significant cut below the elite three-year-olds. Is it possible that he could have improved that much in the span of a couple of months? I’m dubious.
#2, Exaggerator (9/2):
I had always been among the camp that argued Exaggerator was perfectly capable of winning top races over fast tracks, but recent performances suggest that he may indeed be the mud freak that so many handicappers were so eager to proclaim him to be back in the spring. It’s easy to use the distance as an excuse in the Belmont Stakes—not to mention the wide trip that Kent Desormeaux worked out for him—but what was his excuse in the Travers? Yes, the track was mildly speed-favoring, but he never had any punch whatsoever, as he failed to even make his signature early move into contention heading around the far turn. I would wonder if he just doesn’t like New York, but he won the Saratoga Special as a two-year-old. That said, I won’t be shocked if he is able to rebound and still win this race, since he figures to get the right pace scenario and a mile and an eighth is probably his best distance. I’m on the fence, and could probably still get behind him at odds of around 5/1. However, it seems unlikely he’ll offer that much value.
#3, Summer Revolution (8/1): This is the late-bloomer in the bunch. He did absolutely nothing wrong to kick off his career this summer, winning two straight sprints by open lengths while earning eye-catching speed figures. His connections took the plunge and stepped him up into Grade 1 company in the King’s Bishop last time, and he certainly wasn’t disgraced. Sure, the pace was on the slow side and being close to it helped his chances, but he still managed to finish a decent fourth against some of the best sprinting three-year-olds in the country. However, today the waters get even deeper, as this is an awfully difficult spot in which to make a two-turn debut. He’s likely to be a pace factor, but I’ll be surprised if he’s still around at the finish.
#4, Connect (12/1): I thought this son of Curlin could be one of the major players in the Travers last time as he attempted to make the step up in class off a gritty win in the prep race named for his sire. That obviously didn’t pan out, but I wonder if he could move forward off that effort. After all, he had never been taken as far off the pace as he was in the Travers and did make a move into fourth place on the far turn before flattening out in the stretch. I think it’s possible that Connect could have benefitted from that experience. He’s not quite my top selection, but I’m certainly not counting him out here at what should be a square price.
#5, Cupid (5/1):
Cupid has gained a nice little reputation in the months since being removed from the Kentucky Derby trail by his connections—so much so that he was installed at the low price of 5/1 on the morning line in this spot. While he has earned respectable speed figures in each of his last two starts, any reasonable handicapper must acknowledge that those victories came at the expense of significantly inferior competition. This horse was badly exposed when he faced Grade 1 level competition previously, and though he has improved and gotten over some issues since then, I still believe he’s going to be an underlay today. Assuming he breaks well, he should be prominent until the top of the stretch, but I doubt he’ll still be in contention for the victory at the wire.
#6, Wild About Deb (20/1): This guy was no match for Awesome Slew in the Smarty Jones last time. He was moderately against the track bias that day, but he’s still never run fast enough, in that effort or any of his previous starts, to suggest he can be a major factor here. I’ll pass.
#7, Gun Runner (6/1):
Unlike Exaggerator, this colt’s record looks much more impressive when you put your finger over his sloppy track races. Racing over fast tracks, he’s won five starts, with his only losses coming in the form of third place finishes in the Kentucky Derby and Travers. He’s not exactly the kind of horse that makes your jaw drop, but he is steady. Whereas Nyquist and Exaggerator come into this race with spotty recent form, Gun Runner exits one of the best races of his career when third in the Travers, earning the highest last-out speed figure in today’s field at 125. Perhaps it seems odd to call a 15-length loss a horse’s best effort, especially when you’re discussing a multiple graded stakes winner, but I think it’s wise to essentially ignore the winner’s performance when assessing the Travers. In any normal year, Gun Runner would have lost the Midsummer Derby by just over a length, and would have done so while overcoming the disadvantageous outside post position in a field of 13. He’s versatile enough to relax a couple of lengths off the leaders early, so I’m not overly concerned about the prospect of a swift pace. The cutback to a mile and an eighth figures to suit him quite well and I think he’d offer fair value at around 7/2 odds. With any luck, we’ll get better than that.
#8, My Man Sam (20/1): I don’t want to be too hard on him for failing to make up ground in the Travers since few were able to make a late impact in a race that was primarily dominated on the front end. Nevertheless, he has yet to run a race that suggests he’s fast enough to come out on top today. At best, it seems like this one could fill out the bottom rungs of trifectas or superfectas.
#9, Nyquist (5/2):
The Kentucky Derby winner comes into this Pennsylvania Derby in search of revenge. He has fallen from grace since losing his unbeaten record in the Preakness, with some even suggesting that he’s squandered what once seemed like an inevitable three-year-old championship. However, I wouldn’t be so fast to write him off. After all, misguided tactics are primarily to blame for his two most recent losses. In both the Haskell and Preakness, his connections decided that the best way to overcome the sloppy surfaces was to avoid getting caught in behind horses. That resulted in Nyquist setting fast paces that ultimately collapsed, setting the stage for Exaggerator’s two greatest triumphs. This time, Doug O’Neill has made it quite clear that a change of tactics is in order. Nyquist, he says, will be taken off the pace, just as he was in the Derby. I also wouldn’t discount the possibility that this horse just does not care for a wet, sealed dirt surface. I think he’s still the same horse and can rebound in this spot. The question is whether the others—like Gun Runner—have improved in the months since the Derby. I’ll certainly use Nyquist prominently in my wagers, but he doesn’t have much room for error.
#10, Sunny Ridge (12/1): It was nice to see this New Jersey-bred snag another Grade 1 placing in the Haskell as he picked up the pieces to finish third in a race that was coming apart late. This gelding has clearly run his best races over wet tracks—see his runner-up finish in the Champagne and close decision behind Exaggerator in the Delta Jackpot—and he is not going to get that kind of surface on Saturday. A minor award is still possible, but I prefer others on the top end of my tickets.
#11, Discreet Lover (30/1): He was no match for Awesome Slew and Wild About Deb in the Smarty Jones, and those two are outsiders in this race themselves.
#12, Hit It Once More (20/1): This admirable New York-bred has really put things together over the past few months for Gary Sciacca, winning four of his last five career starts while reeling off two straight stakes victories. The 122 speed figure that he earned in the Albany suggests that he might be ready for this step up into open stakes company. However, that number was earned with the benefit of a slow pace (color-coded in blue), and today he is likely going to have to rate while chasing a fast pace from this wide post position. It seems like too tall of an order.
I believe the two most likely winners are Nyquist (#9) and GUN RUNNER (#7), and the value lies with the latter. I’ll bet him to win at anything over 7/2 odds and will also key him with some other contenders in exactas and trifectas.
Exacta Key Box: 7 with 2,4,9
Trifecta: 7 with 2,4,9 with 2,4,8,9,10