The last time the racing world saw War of Will, the 3-year-old colt was a fading fifth in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga Race Course. That was in late July and after that race trainer Mark Casse thought it was time to regroup.
That time is done.
War of Will, who earlier this year was a major player in the Triple Crown, is back. The son of War Front is the 4-1 morning-line third choice for Saturday’s Grade 1, $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing.
And, heading into the 1 1/8-mile race, Casse is gushing over how Gary Barber’s colt is doing.
“He is fantastic,” Casse said. “He looks good. He has put on some weight. He has matured. He is sharp. He is ready. Now, it’s just a matter of having some good racing luck.”
War of Will will ship to Parx from Belmont Park Saturday morning.
Casse is optimistic, but knows War of Will is coming into this race off two straight subpar performances. Before the Jim Dandy he was a non-factor in the Belmont Stakes, finishing ninth and 7 1/4 lengths by stablemate Sir Winston.
“He had an excuse in the Belmont,” Casse said. “I don’t think he liked the track at all. As far as Saratoga, he was just disappointing.”
War of Will uncharacteristically took jockey Tyler Gaffalione to the lead in the Jim Dandy and ended up beating just one horse.
War of Will breezed five times since, the last two workouts at Belmont. He has recorded bullet works in three of those breezes, the latest a half-mile in :47.40 last Saturday.
The Pennsylvania Derby will be War of Will’s eighth start this year. He is the only horse that ran in all three legs of the Triple Crown. In the Kentucky Derby, he was at the center of the controversial disqualification of Maximum Security.
War of Will was bothered by Maximum Security at the top of the stretch and ended up finishing eighth (although moved up to seventh following the DQ). Maximum Security, who was the morning-line favorite in the Pennsylvania Derby before being scratched Tuesday, ended up placed 17th in the Run for the Roses.
None of that matters much now to Casse, who just wants to see his horse show his true talents when the Parx gates open for the Pennsylvania Derby at 5:48 p.m. Saturday.
“He has done a lot of good things and there is no question he is an extremely talented horse,” Casse said. “His last two races have tarnished his reputation a little bit. We’re anxious to regain that." - Tim Wilkin
Brown looks to bolster Guarana’s championship resume
Three Chimneys Farm’s Guarana aced her third test in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks in late July at Saratoga and trainer Chad Brown started thinking about two months down the road.
He skipped right past late August, eschewing the Grade 1 Alabama for the daughter of Ghostzapper and instead targeting the Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes at Parx Racing.
“We’ve been pointing for this race for a while,” Brown said Tuesday from his office at Saratoga’s Oklahoma Training Track. “She’s had plenty of time to recover since her last race and we were glad to give her that time.”
The $1 million Cotillion, a “Win and You’re In” race that carries an automatic berth into the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, attracted a field of 11 3-year-old fillies. Guarana, the 9-5 morning-line favorite in the deep group, looks to enhance what might be extremely strong credentials toward the 3-year-old filly championship come season’s end.
“We’re still taking it a race at a time,” Brown said. “We really hadn’t planned past this race, but if she performs well we’d have to keep her under consideration for the Distaff.”
Guarana drew post 8 for the 1 1/16-mile Cotillion, inside of strong contenders Bellafina (post 10) and champion Jaywalk (11) and to the outside of expected pacesetter and Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress (1) and Indiana Oaks winner Street Band.
Brown likes the post for Guarana, who won a 6 1/2-furlong maiden race at Keeneland by 14 3/4 lengths in her debut then topped Serengeti Empress in the Grade 1 Acorn Stakes going 1 mile on Belmont Stakes Day in her second start. She drew post 1 for the CCA Oaks and led the field from gate-to-wire, winning by a length from Black-Eyed Susan winner Point of Honor.
Guarana breezed seven times between the CCA Oaks and the Cotillion, five at Saratoga and two at Belmont Park. Her final work for the Cotillion was a bullet 5 furlongs in 1:00.10 last Saturday at Belmont.
“I couldn’t be happier with her the way she’s training,” Brown said. “It’s a very solid race. She drew well, in the clear there a bit. She’s really doing well. The distance of a mile and a sixteenth will help her, too. I wasn’t really looking to get her out to a mile and a quarter. The Cotillion makes a lot of sense and we’ll see how she does.” - Tom Law
Derby favorite Improbable trains after break
It was just before 9 a.m. when Improbable, the 8-5 morning line favorite for the Grade 1, $1 million Pennsylvania Derby, got his first glimpse at the track he’ll run on Saturday. Jimmy Barnes, assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, led the son of City Zip to the Parx main track in the half-hour training window allotted to horses running in Saturday’s stakes races.
Exercise rider Efrain Santana, who works for Parx-based trainer John Servis, was on board as Improbable galloped “about a mile” according to Barnes.
“Very nice,” said Barnes, who watched Improbable behind a rail at the top of the stretch. “We don’t need to do too much. Just want to keep him fresh and happy.”
Improbable’s last race, a win in Del Mar’s Shared Belief Stakes Aug. 25, was his first start since finishing sixth in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico May 18. The 1-mile Shared Belief was also his first win as a 3-year-old in five starts. Improbable won all three of his starts as a 2-year-old, including the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity.
The Baffert barn will bid for a third straight win in the Pennsylvania Derby. McKinzie won it last year and West Coast in 2017. Baffert is the only trainer to win back-to-back editions in the 40-year history of the race.
McKinzie’s Pennsylvania Derby win came following a 196-day layoff.
“It’s tough coming off a layoff and coming back to this type of race,” Barnes said. “It’s to your advantage to have a race underneath you. At least the fitness factor, in your mind, you are thinking you are ready. You would hate to ship 1,500 miles and find out you need a race.” - Tim Wilkin
Mr. Money energetic in first Parx training session
Bret Calhoun walked out of his hotel just before sunrise Thursday morning, felt the crisp air hovering just above 50 degrees and figured Mr. Money would give his team everything they could handle in his first training session at Parx Racing.
Mr. Money, 2-1 second choice on the morning line for Saturday’s Grade 1 $1 million Pennsylvania Derby, proved Calhoun correct about 45 minutes later with his first trip over the Parx main track. Under exercise rider Peter Mudd, Mr. Money went to the track alongside a pony not long after training started Thursday morning. The son of Goldencents walked on the track at the half-mile gap, jogged the wrong way to the frontside and galloped 1 1/2 miles under a tight hold.
Calhoun watched with his wife Sara from a stand near the gap and liked what he saw.
“He’s full of himself, just like he has been,” Calhoun said. “He’s been really sharp for a while. I expected that this morning with the cool weather. He hasn’t felt cool weather like this since last winter.”
Mr. Money tore through the spring and summer – after losses in Triple Crown preps derailed any thoughts of the Kentucky Derby – with victories in four straight stakes leading into the 1 1/8-mile Pennsylvania Derby. He comes in off back-to-back Grade 3 Derby wins, in Indiana and West Virginia, and one of the better records of a 3-year-old still in training.
Calhoun bypassed Saratoga’s Grade 1 Travers in favor of the Pennsylvania Derby, favoring the span of seven weeks between races versus three, and also the prospect of facing some or all of the divisional leaders with a chance to get into the race for season ending honors.
The Pennsylvania Derby partially presents that opportunity with Preakness winner War of Will and the highly regarded Improbable still in the field. They won’t get the chance to take on the divisional leader, Maximum Security, who scratched the day after entries were drawn Monday.
“We figured at one time that maybe all of them would show up here,” Calhoun said. “We expected that and actually were kind of hoping for it, looking at the 3-year-old championship situation. It’s time to do it. We campaigned him that way, to keep him fresh toward the end of the year. It’s a lot of money, we’d be taking on the best and maybe we get a 3-year-old championship out of it.
“At the same time we haven’t had a lot of conversation about it, the 3-year-old championship. It’s not something we discussed early on or set out to do but look, it’s something that could happen. It still could, but losing Maximum Security probably hurts a little bit if we were to win.” - Tom Law
Champion Jaywalk good to go for Cotillion
DJ Stables’ and Cash Is King’s Jaywalk is “sitting on good,” according to trainer John Servis heading into Saturday’s Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes at Parx Racing. The Parx-based trainer sent last year's champion 2-year-old filly to the track Monday morning for her final serious breeze for the Cotillion and the daughter of Cross Traffic went a half-mile in :48.71.
“Everything is good,” Servis said. " She was a handful; so that’s a very good sign.”
Jaywalk started her sophomore campaign with a fourth in the Grade 2 Davona Dale at Gulfstream Park, then added a third in the Grade 1 Ashland at Keeneland. The lanky Kentucky-bred then came in at the start and clipped heels with rival Positive Spirit shortly after the break in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs May 3, which led to a disqualification from sixth to 13th.
Sensing his filly needed a change, Servis changed her training style. He opted to run her in mile-long gallops known as two-minute licks rather than her previous sharp, short breezes.
Jaywalk returned fresh. Sporting blinkers for the first time in the Grade 3 Delaware Oaks July 6, she responded with a 9-length victory. She then finished second to fellow Cotillion entrant Horologist in the Grade 3 Monmouth Oaks August 17.
The filly with earnings of $1,653,500 through 10 career starts has been a challenge, but she’s back on a better path according to Servis.
"Early on she was (tricky), said Servis, who won the 2000 Cotillion with Jostle. “We just did a little too much with her, but she’s back on track now. Her last two races were really good. Her last race is a lot better than it looks. She bounced a little bit off the Delaware start.
"That was her lifetime high race. She came back 3 or 4 points slower than the Delaware race so she got a little bounce, but she’s going into this race very good. I don't really know if it was the blinkers or if it was more of going back to doing what we did last year with her, but she’s ready. It’s a solid field. It arguably might be the best 3-year-old filly race this year.”
The Cotillion will be Jaywalk’s second start over her home track. She broke her maiden by 7 1/2 lengths in the mud at Parx in her second career start last summer.
Jaywalk stepped up from there, rattling off victories in the $50,000 White Clay Creek Stakes at Delaware before impressive front-running wins in the Grade 1 Frizette at Belmont Park Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs.
Jaywalk, who will wear the red, white and green colors of Cash Is King Saturday, drew the outside post in the field of 11 for the Cotillion. The Cotillion winner receives an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff as a “Win and You’re In” race in the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series. - Anthony Affrunti
St. Lewis hopes home-field advantage helps Afleet Destiny
The faster the pace in Saturday’s $1 million Cotillion Stakes the happier trainer Uriah St. Lewis will be. He is one of four trainers based at Parx Racing who will send out a starter in the Grade 1 stakes for 3-year-old fillies, a “Win and You’re In” event for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
St. Lewis will saddle the Hard Spun filly Afleet Destiny in the Cotillion. He hopes to see a lively speed duel in the early stages of the 1 1/16 mile race.
“The race is jammed up with speed,” St. Lewis said, referring to the likes of Serengeti Empress, Guarana and Jaywalk. “I hope they all go out and run real fast. If they all jam up up front, we might get a piece. We might jump up and get the whole thing!”
Afleet Destiny has one win in 14 career starts, but hasn’t ducked the big guns of the division. Two starts back she finished fifth behind Dunbar Road in the Grade 1 Alabama at Saratoga; the race before that she was fourth in the Grade 3 Delaware Oaks behind Jaywalk.
Afleet Destiny, who will be ridden by Anthony Salgado, has one win from seven starts at Parx. St. Lewis says the home-field advantage can only help.
“She doesn’t have to get up and go someplace,” St. Lewis said. “You don’t have to do nothing. Just get up in the morning and everything is normal. You know, sleeping in your own bed is always different than sleeping in someone else’s bed.” - Tim Wilkin
Wagering opportunities abound Saturday
Parx Racing will offer four Pick 4s on Pennsylvania Derby Day, including two all-stakes Pick 4s.
The first Pick 4 kicks off the card with the opening four races starting at 12:25 p.m. EDT.
The second Pick 4 of the day – and first all-stakes wager – starts in the fifth race with Alphabet Soup Handicap and continues with the Plum Pretty, Turf Amazon and Parx Dirt Mile.
The third Pick 4 starts in the eighth race with the Parx Dirt Mile, continues with the Grade 2 Gallant Bob and Grade 1 Cotillion and ends with the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby.
The final Pick 4 of the day features the last four races on the card – the Grade 1 Cotillion and Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby and races 12 and 13.
The opening races on the card are named for TVG and run as the TVG Future Stars. Caton Bredar will make the winner’s presentation for the first, a 7-furlong $75,000 maiden for 2-year-old fillies on the main track. Rich Perlof will make the presentation for the second, a 7-furlong $75,000 maiden for 2-year-olds on the main track.
The Gallant Bob, Cotillion and Pennsylvania Derby are part of the New York Racing Association’s Cross Country Pick 5. The special all-stakes edition of the Cross Country Pick 5 starts with the Gallant Bob at 4:34 p.m. and continues with the Cotillion at 5:14 p.m. The Sweet Briar Too at Woodbine is the third race in the series, with the Pennsylvania Derby and Kelso Handicap at Belmont finishing the wager.
The wager features a minimum bet of 50 cents and includes a mandatory payout of the entire pool.
Cap giveaway, family fun in Picnic Grove
Fans who come out to Parx Racing Saturday will receive a free Pennsylvania Derby baseball cap (while supplies last) and can enjoy some family fun in the Picnic Grove and throughout the facility. Activities include pony rides, face painters, Moonbounce, temporary tattoo, live music, a jockey t-shirt toss, souvenir merchandise for sale, horseshoe decorating with a donation and food and beverage specials.