Pennsylvania Derby Day will offer a true one-two punch Saturday at Parx Racing when the track's newly elevated signature event joins its sister race, the Cotillion, as a Grade 1. The stakes races each has a purse of $1 million.
The Pennsylvania Derby was run as a Grade 2 from 2004 to 2016, and the race's new status is relevant this year because trainer Bob Baffert has shipped in Travers winner West Coast. In a wide-open divisional battle, a Pennsylvania Derby victory would tie West Coast with Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming as the only 3-year-olds to win two Grade 1's this year on the main track. Oscar Performance has won two Grade 1's on turf.
West Coast will be solidly favored over nine opponents despite carrying high weight of 124 pounds and conceding from two to seven pounds. Baffert also has the Cotillion favorite in Abel Tasman, who will be gunning for her fourth consecutive Grade 1 win. Mike Smith rides both horses.
The card, which offers total purses of $3.06 million, also includes the Grade 3 Gallant Bob, and the Connect and Alphabet Soup stakes. The 13-race card begins at 12:25 p.m. Eastern and has 138 betting interests, an average of 10.6 per race.
West Coast has won four in a row, but the Travers was his breakout race. A late-runner in many of his starts, West Coast surprisingly was hustled by Smith from the gate and put on the lead in the 1 1/4-mile Travers. He took his 11 rivals on a merry chase through even fractions, cruising home to win by 3 1/4 lengths after turning back bids from Irap and Gunnevera in upper stretch.
"He's a fast horse," Baffert said. "He just broke well and was doing it easy."
West Coast won't catch his rivals napping again. Although not dedicated front-runners, Timeline, Irish War Cry, and Outplay have speed. West Coast is unlikely to control the tempo as easily as he did at Saratoga, and there is a good chance he will come from off the pace instead.
West Coast, a son of Flatter, is the best foal out of Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Caressing, the champion 2-year-old filly of 2000. He earned a career-best 108 Beyer Speed Figure in the Travers and will be returning on four weeks' rest.
"It's a little quick back, but he's doing well," Baffert said. "I don't see any difference in him. It was either this race or go a mile and a quarter with older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. He really wants 1 1/4 miles."
Because of West Coast's Travers victory, Baffert will receive a $50,000 bonus for running him in the Pennsylvania Derby, as will the colt's owners, Gary and Mary West.
Irap, the Travers third-place finisher after a wide trip for trainer Doug O'Neill, is the likely second choice in the betting. Irap won the Blue Grass at Keeneland as a maiden in the spring, then finished 18th in the Kentucky Derby.
"He's always been physically mature, like Lebron James in seventh and eighth grade, but mentally it's taken a while," O'Neill said. "As a maiden we ran him in some tough spots. There were more than a few times that he had us scratching our heads. In the Blue Grass he got a dream trip and the maturity button started to flicker. In the Derby he was a bit overwhelmed."
Between the Kentucky Derby and the Travers, Irap ran down Girvin to win the Grade 3 Ohio Derby and scored impressively in the Grade 3 Indiana Derby. O'Neill shipped him to Parx shortly after the Travers, and he has worked twice over the surface.
"I thought he was dynamite in the Travers, that he ran great," O'Neill said. "I think he really showed his maturity that day. He's bounced out of it perfectly."
Mario Gutierrez, who has flown in twice to get aboard Irap at Parx, has the mount for owners Paul and Zillah Reddam.
O'Neill also has longshot Term of Art in the race for Calumet Farm. Term of Art will add blinkers.
"Like Irap, he's a big, good-looking Tiznow," O'Neill said. "We sent him to Calumet Farm to freshen up mentally and physically, and they called me and said, 'You've got to see this guy.'"
Term of Art has been at Parx for about two weeks.
Timeline and Irish War Cry are top contenders.
Timeline went into the Haskell undefeated in four starts, but he broke slowly and then was rank to place as the 9-5 favorite. After fighting jockey Javier Castellano early, he tired to finish fifth.
He has been working lights out at Belmont Park for Chad Brown and can be expected to relax better and fire his best shot on Saturday. Castellano is back aboard.
Wood Memorial winner Irish War Cry got caught up in a pace tussle with Timeline and Battle of Midway in the Haskell before he settled off those two. He finished fourth and has since impressed trainer Graham Motion in his training.
"I'm as happy with him, even happier, than I have been going into any of his races," Motion said.
The Pennsylvania Derby field is completed by Game Over, Giuseppe the Great, Talk Logistics, and Watch Me Whip.