The Bensalem skies were gray, and the cold winds blew late Saturday afternoon at Parx Racing. An all-day rain had given way to a misty air over the track, threatening to put a pall over the biggest day of racing on the Pennsylvania calendar.
However, inside the paddock, it was all sunshine and rainbows when the young, gray colt named Saudi Crown came strutting in following the 43rd running of the Grade 1, $1 million betPARX Pennsylvania Derby.
FMQ Stables, the rookie ownership group from Saudi Arabia, were whooping it up along with trainer Brad Cox and his team. They were able to let out a little steam after Saudi Crown, the even-money favorite, had completed a gate-to-wire journey by winning the 1 1/8-mile race by a half length over Dreamlike, trained by Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher.
With the win, Saudi Crown dropped himself into the conversation among the leading 3-year-olds in the country, along with the likes of Belmont and Travers winner Arcangelo, Florida Derby winner 2022 champion 2-year-old male Forte and Kentucky Derby winner Mage. At least that is what his trainer thinks.
This was the first graded stakes win for the son of Always Dreaming out of the Tapit mare New Narration.
“I think so,” Cox said. “He has been there. He needed a breakthrough performance and I think he is one of the top 3-year-olds in the country.”
Ridden by Florent Geroux, Saudi Crown improved his record to three wins in five starts with a pair of seconds. All of his races have been during his 3-year-old season.
And, with a little luck, he might be undefeated. The two times Saudi Crown lost, he was beaten by a nose in the Grade 3 Dwyer at Belmont Park June 30 and lost by the same margin in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga July 29.
“We have asked a lot out of him in the last two runs and I think he gained a lot of experience and has been battle-tested in his last two runs,” Cox said.
In the Pennsylvania Derby, he showed his trademark early speed by cutting fractions of :23.16, :47.27 and 1:12.17.
“He broke like a rocket,” Geroux said. “I thought I was in a great spot.”
“Based on what we saw throughout the day, I thought he had to be aggressive,” Cox said. “Sometimes, you see that and everyone has the same idea. He has enough natural speed to break clear off and he did and Flo did a great job.”
Scotland, from Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott’s stable, kept up the chase with jockey Junior Alvarado until the three-eighths pole. Heading into the stretch, Saudi Crown’s lead widened to 2 lengths but he had to brace for the challenge from Dreamlike, who was ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr.
“Going into the stretch, he wanted to be in the clear,” Ortiz said. “He was responding. He was closing. For a second, I thought if that horse would just come back a little, I could get there.”
For a moment, Cox was having a case of deja vu as he had seen this show before. He was hoping it was not going to happen again, a narrow loss at the finish line.
“Right before he straightened up I saw his ears going back and forth and I thought he was looking around a little bit,” Cox said. “He kind of got a little lost. He is still lightly raced and Flo had to re-engage and push him along.”
Reincarnate, the second choice in the field of 11, never made a serious bid from post position 11 and finished sixth.
Saudi Crown will likely head to the Breeders’ Cup. Which race – the Dirt Mile or the Classic – has yet to be determined.
Faisal M. Alqahtani of FMQ Stables said the decision will come from Cox. FMQ has been involved in U.S. racing for one year. Alqahtani came to the states for the recent Keeneland September yearling sale and stayed for the Pennsylvania Derby. They purchased Saudi Crown for $240,000 at last year’s OBS April sale of 2-year-olds in training.
“He could be in the Classic,” said Cox, who also said the Saudi Cup next year would be in play because of the owners.
Saudi Crown covered the distance in 1:50.62 over the sloppy track and paid $4.20. He earned $546,000 to boost his earnings to $817,085.
Il Miracolo finished third, a neck ahead of Magic Tap. The Antonio Sano-trained Il Miracolo had to survive a jockey objection lodged by Tyler Gaffalione, who was aboard Magic Tap. After a short review, the objection was disallowed. Crupi finished fifth followed by Reincarnate, Gilmore, Daydreaming Bob, West Coast Cowboy, Scotland and Modern Era. – Tim Wilkin
Pennsylvania Derby: What They Said
Winning trainer Brad Cox: “Right before he straightened up, I saw his ears going back and forth and I thought this horse is looking around a little bit. He kind of got a little lost. Florent said he was looking around a little bit when he came back to the winner’s circle. He is still lightly raced and he had re-engage a bit and push him along.”
Is Saudi Crown among the top 3-year-olds now? “I think so. He has been there. He needed a breakthrough performance and I think he is one of the top 3-year-olds in the country.”
What was the difference today after losing last two (Dwyer, Jim Dandy) by a nose? “Just progression. In the Dwyer, he had come off a 6 1/2-furlong race (a win) and was stretching out to a mile. He went up the backstretch a little quick that day but overall finished up well. He was passed, he came back and lost the bob. The last time out (Jim Dandy), he got beat a nose by a champion (Forte) in his first run around two turns. We have asked a lot out of him in last two runs and I think he gained a lot of experience and has been battle-tested in his last two runs.”
“Based on what we saw throughout the day, I thought we had to be aggressive. Sometimes, you see that and everyone has the same idea. He has enough natural speed to break clear off and he did and Flo did a great job.”
How far has he come since the Jim Dandy? “You know, he has always been a good horse. We thought a lot of him last year at Saratoga as a 2-year-old. He had a setback and the owners were all good with giving him as much time as he needed. And he rehabbed well. We kept him in Louisville all through the winter and targeted Keeneland with him and it worked out. He is two noses from being undefeated. Very proud of what he did.”
Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile or Classic? “He could be in the Classic. Based off the pedigree, by a Derby winner (Always Dreaming) out of a Tapit mare (New Narration), with his physical deal, he could handle the mile and a quarter. Obviously, you have to get the right setup. I am not sure he has to have the lead in order to win. He is a pretty kind horse who breaks well. I will tell you this, with his Saudi-based ownership group – great guys to work with and for – I think the Saudi Cup is one race that is definitely on the target as well.”
Winning owner Faisal M. Alqahtani of FMQ Stables: “It is a historic race. Saudi Crown is all about speed. He’s a winner as a sprinter, he’s a winner as a two-turn horse. That’s just fabulous. He showed his class today. And he has more to do. He lost the Dwyer to Fort Bragg by a nose and in the Jim Dandy he almost got Forte (when second by a nose). Today he showed the world what class he is.”
On a potential start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic: “I cannot answer that question. We are professional people. We will regroup with our trainer, Brad H. Cox, who is one of the best trainers. We are here to assist him. The decision is for him.”
Background: FMQ Stables has been involved in U.S. racing for one year. Alqahtani came to the U.S. for the Keeneland September yearling sale and stayed for the Pennsylvania Derby.
Winning jockey Florent Geroux: Surprised at how easy you made the lead? Yes and no. He broke super sharp. I broke and I was almost like a good length and a half in front, so when you break that sharp it allows you to take a better position instead of breaking flat-footed or a step slow. He broke like a rocket and from there I thought I was in a great spot. Reincarnate, being so far outside, I thought it gave me an extra second and a half to slow it down in the beginning. I didn’t see the fraction, what was it, :47? (the half-mile fraction was :47.27)… Pretty good huh?”
“Last time he was a little bit keen first time around two turns. I thought I could go a little bit quicker to get him to go a little more relaxed, and that’s what I did today. Just to have a two-turn race under his belt, I think from now on he’s going to be very dangerous. He’s a horse we always had very high hopes on. We always had faith in him and I’m glad the owner made the trip from Saudi today. They seem very happy and very proud of the horse.”
“It’s great, especially winning a Grade 1 race. He’s a 3-year-old. This year it’s just too bad because he came very late to the party. He’s just two noses away from being undefeated.”
“He started looking around the last eighth of a mile. His ears were flopping a little bit; a little bit too much for my liking, but it was great.”
Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. (Dreamlike, second): “Beautiful trip. I saved ground, started moving great by the half-mile, three-eighths pole. Going into the stretch he wanted to be in the clear and he was responding. He was closing. For a second I thought if that horse (Saudi Crown) would just come back a little I could get there.”
“Last time I tried to stay close and he didn’t really fire, so that was our plan. Help him out of there and let him find his stride. I didn’t care where I was. Then try to make a run. Going by the five-eighths pole he started picking it up really good. I was close enough that I could make up that ground. He was doing it easy and comfortable.”
Ceiling Crusher goes all the way on the lead in Cotillion
A strong, front-running pace was all Ceiling Crusher needed to capture Saturday’s Grade 1, $1 million Cotillion Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Parx Racing. The California-bred daughter of Mr. Big employed that strategy to lead eight others from start to finish to win the 1 1/16-mile contest by a half-length on the sloppy, sealed main track in 1:45.69 under jockey Edwin Maldonado.
Under the lime green and white colors that represent Wonderland Racing Stables, Todd Cady, Tim Kasparoff and Ty Leatherman, Ceiling Crusher earned her first Grade 1 victory in her seventh lifetime start for trainer Doug O’Neill. The win was her second straight after winning the Grade 3 Torrey Pines Stakes at Del Mar. That was her first start in open company after running vs. California breds in her first five starts.
Ceiling Crusher, no stranger to covering a lot of ground after shipping to Parx Tuesday from her home track at Santa Anita, an estimated trip of 2,709 miles, pleased her trainer.
“She brought everything that she was showing us back home on the road,” O’Neill said. “You never know. You never know until you pack your bags, and they have to stay in a hotel room and be away from home. She handled everything perfectly.”
Ceiling Crusher was urged to the front after the break under Maldonado, and was pressed through an opening quarter mile in :23.31. Pretty Mischievous and jockey Tyler Gafflione, in search of their fourth consecutive Grade 1 victory as the 2-1 favorite, gave chase in sixth in the early stages. They continued through the slop behind a cluster of soggy horseflesh belonging to Majestic Creed, Hoosier Philly, Defining Purpose, Foggy Night and Imonra while Ceiling Crusher led through the half-mile in :47.64 and 6 furlongs in 1:12.98.
Occult, launching her bid from last under Irad Ortiz Jr., swung wide and rallied into third behind the Brendan Walsh-trained Pretty Mischievous who, with her streak in jeopardy, made an impact through the turn to the stretch and was now desperate to catch the front-runner. Ceiling Crusher, still there after the mile in 1:39.16, held strong and held off her main foe. Pretty Mischievous settled for second while Occult finished third and Hoosier Philly checked in fourth.
She was followed by Defining Purpose, Foggy Night, Just Katherine, Majestic Creed and Imonra.
“Edwin has gotten to know her. She has no accelerator stuck to her at all.” said O’Neill. “She is not a run-off. Being in the two-hole, he did not want to get caught up in a lot of traffic. He rode her away from there and I just thank God no one else went on a suicide mission to stop her. She has that high-cruising speed, and she carried it all the way to the wire. She does not have a huge turn of foot. She has a high-cruising speed, a grinder, a lot of heart. He used all that to a T.”
Pretty Mischievous, the leading candidate to win this year’s Eclipse Award as top 3-year-old filly, left her connections with disappointment following her performance.
“Maybe she didn’t handle the track great, initially,” Walsh said. “Tyler said as soon as she switched her leads down the back, he kind of felt her way back into the race. But you know, Doug’s filly got the jump on us, and she was gone. That’s the way it goes, I’m afraid. Listen, she always gives it 110 percent. Anytime she has been beaten she hasn’t been beaten far. You can’t be disappointed in her, we’re just a little disappointed in the circumstances. Hats off to Doug’s filly, too. She took her opportunity, and she won the race. I’m not taking anything away from her.”
Ceiling Cruiser, who now boasts six wins from seven starts and earnings of $938,400, will return home before her next start is considered. O’Neill will leave the decision to the owners.
“She is not nominated (to the Breeders’ Cup),” O’Neill said. “It will be up to the guys and gals, if they want to write a big check. This was our Breeders’ Cup. We looked at this on the calendar months ago and the fact that is coming true … this was our Breeders’ Cup.” – Anthony Affrunti
Cotillion: What They Said
Winning trainer Doug O’Neill: “She brought everything that she was showing us back home on the road. You never know. We had the great Lava Man, who did so many wonderful things in the state of California but could never take it outside of California. You never know until you pack your bags and they have to stay in a hotel room and be away from home. She handled everything perfectly. Edwin has gotten to know her. She has no accelerator stuck to her at all. She is not a run-off. Being in the two-hole, he did not want to get caught up in a lot of traffic. He rode her away from there and I just thank God no one else went on a suicide mission to stop her. She has that high-cruising speed and she carried it all the way to the wire. She does not have a huge turn of foot. She has a high cruising speed, a grinder, a lot of heart. He used all that to a T.
Breeders’ Cup Distaff next? “She is not nominated. It will be up to the guys and gals, if they want to write a big check. This was our Breeders’ Cup. We looked at this on the calendar months ago and the fact that is coming true … this was our Breeders’ Cup today.
Not getting to the bottom of her: “I wonder. We’ll have to talk to Edwin about that. It looked like it was pretty close to the bottom to me late there. She is a wonderful filly and she has so much determination and so much of a will to win. I don’t know how far she’ll go but we know she will go a mile and a sixteenth on a sloppy track at Parx. That is all that matters. And it’s a Grade 1!”
Case for top 3-year-old filly? “If I am voting, yeah. The filly that she beat (Pretty Mischievous) …. these kind of fillies make you want to jump out of bed and get to the barn. It’s so hard to find horses like her.”
Concern leaving California for the first time: “It’s always a concern and the weather was a big concern. Credit to Parx management. I even thought early this morning, ‘are we still going to run?’ They put on a wonderful card and were able to handle all that Mother Nature threw at them. A great day. I don’t know when she is going home, but we are heading to the bar. We are going to celebrate her victory and celebrate life and cherish this moment.”
Compare it to winning the 2021 Pennsylvania Derby with Hot Rod Charlie: “They are all individual, right? Any horse you work alongside, when they throw a big effort in, you are so grateful.”
Winning jockey Edwin Maldonado: “The question was if she could handle (the 1 1/16 miles). We just let her kick on and do her thing. She’s been running short and taking the lead sprinting, so I just needed a good break and we got a good break. The rest was her. I don’t like any horses getting close to her. By the time they came at her at the three-eighths pole, I just went.”
When did you know you had it won? “When I turned for home. When I hit the eighth pole, I’m thinking, ‘OK, she’s got a good chance.’ I’m very happy. These are good owners and I’m very thankful I got the opportunity to win for these guys.”
On a potential start in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Santa Anita Park: “That would feel great. It’s our hometown.”
Trainer Brendan Walsh (Pretty Mischievous, second): “A little disappointed in that she maybe didn’t handle the track great initially. Tyler said as soon as she switched her leads down the back he kind of felt her way back into the race. But you know, Doug’s filly got the jump on us and she was gone. That’s the way it goes I’m afraid. Listen, if she can at all make her run she always makes her run. She always gives it 110 percent. Anytime she has been beaten she hasn’t been beaten far. You can’t be disappointed in her, we’re just a little disappointed in the circumstances. Hats off to Doug’s filly, too. She took her opportunity and she won the race. I’m not taking anything away from her.”
What could be next for Pretty Mischievous? “We’ll see how she comes out of this and we’ll chat and come up with a plan. We weren’t really looking beyond today to be honest. We’ll see what happens. As always, we’re very proud of her. She’ll be back.”
Jockey Tyler Gafflione (Pretty Mischievous, second): “She was kind of resenting the track for the first quarter of a mile, but once she switched leads down the backside she was in a little better position. The winner just had the jump on us today.”
On positioning down on inside: “There was plenty of room there, that wasn’t an issue. More than anything, I just think she didn’t like the track. Breaking on the inside it took us awhile to get better speed and force our way out and make some room to make the run. The weather though, man, of all the days.”
Ceiling Crusher (#2), with Edwin Maldonado riding, wins Saturday’s $1 million, Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes at Parx Racing. Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO.