by DICK POWELL
Racetracks take a big risk when they schedule their major races on the turf for their biggest day of racing. But, despite rain in nearby areas, Penn National completed a great day of racing on Saturday over firm turf.
HAWKISH won the $500,000 Penn Mile G2 with a looping move with Manny Franco. Despite lugging in, Franco straightened him out without losing too much momentum and won by three, clear lengths. I would think the $1.25 million Belmont Derby (G1) could be next for him but there is common ownership between him and CATHOLIC BOY who won the Pennine Ridge Stakes (G3) at Belmont Park in a remarkable re-rally. Who knows; maybe both will run.
The $200,000 Penn Oaks went to GOT STORMY, who overcame tight quarters heading into the far turn then held on after she surged to the lead. Tyler Gaffalione gave her a great ride for Mark Casse and you could see the top two or three come back in the Belmont Oaks (G1).
I thought Rusty Arnold would keep MORTICIA back home at Churchill Downs for a stakes race there but he shipped to Penn National instead and she took down the Penn Ladies Dash Stakes going five furlongs on the turf. Racing closer to the pace than expected, she still packed her customary late kick and went on to a length victory as the odds-on favorite.
OAK BLUFFS delivered as the second choice in the Pennsylvania Governor’s Cup when he had to idle in traffic to the stretch. When Paco Lopez found room, the race was over and he flew home to win by three-quarters of a length for Mary Eppler.
SAXON WARRIOR went off as the 4-5 favorite in Saturday’s Epsom Derby (G1). When he won the 2,000 Guineas (G1) in his previous start, Donnacha O’Brien, filling in for Ryan Moore in the saddle but his regular morning work rider, said that 1 1/4 miles might be his best distance. How true he was.
In a shocker, SAXON WARRIOR could do no better than fourth as 16-1 MASAR avenged his third-place finish in the 2,000 Guineas and was everything that trainer Charlie Appleby had said all week.
In the battle of royally-bred colts, MASAR was much the best up the hill at Epsom and the son of NEW APPROACH out of the fantastic racemare KHAWLAH showed his grit and determination to win by 1 1/2 lengths. It was the first Derby win ever for a horse sporting the royal blue silks of Godolphin and coupled with WILD ILLUSION’s second-place finish in the Oaks (G1) the day before, it marked a return to prominence for the Dubai-based operation.
If you just based your handicapping decisions on what the connections are saying, you might have been a bit suspect of SAXON WARRIOR’s chance of getting the distance (I wasn’t) based on what Donnacha O’Brien said and you had to take notice of Appleby’s bullish view of MASAR’s chances. Assuming that they were telling the truth, it might have given you pause. A horse that might be even a small question mark would have more trouble getting the distance if the turf was softened by rain. Drawing post 1 and stumbling at the start didn’t help either.
Appleby indicated that the Irish Derby (G1) could be next for MASAR. Trainer Aidan O’Brien, Donnacha’s father, said they would wait and see how SAXON WARRIOR comes out of the race. The Irish Derby could be in their plans or he could drop back in distance and go in the Coral-Eclipse Stakes (G1) going 1 1/4 miles. On firm ground, I would back him against MASAR but there is no guarantee that he will get it.