The Grade 1 $1 million Pennsylvania Derby lost its headline attraction when multiple Grade 1 winner Maximum Security bowed-out with an illness. Even without him, however, the Pennsylvania Derby will still be a rich and important race in the context of three-year-old division which is still lacking a clear leader.
The divisional championship is still up for grabs, and one of the horses in the discussion for top three-year-old honors in 2019, War of Will, will still be on hand to take to the track as the favorite at Parx on Saturday, Sept. 21. A win would be enough to give the Mark Casse trainee the inside track to the Champion Three-Year-Old title, pending, of course, the results of next week’s Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) at Belmont and the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita.
Standing in War of Will’s way will be Pennsylvania Derby top contenders Improbable and Mr. Money, who also both have big chances to win in a field that also will include Shanghai Superfly, Math Wizard, and Spun to Run.
It’s late September and we still have no idea who the top three-year-old of 2019 will be. The Breeders’ Cup is only six weeks away after this weekend, and the surviving top three-year-olds have precious few chances remaining to distinguishing themselves for the title, short of one of them clinching the division with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which obviously would be good enough to earn any of the horses in the discussion an Eclipse Award.
The 2019 Triple Crown yielded three different winners, and none of the three winners have done a single thing to bolster their credentials ever since. Kentucky Derby non-winning winner Country House and Belmont Stakes-winner Sir Winston each lack another win and their seasons are over. War of Will won the Preakness, giving him not only a Grade 1, but also a Triple Crown victory to put on his mantle in addition to wins earlier this year in the Lecomte (G3) and Risen Star Stakes (G2) at Fair Grounds.
The luster has quickly worn off War of Will since the Preakness, however, since he lost badly in both outings since then when ninth in the Belmont Stakes and fifth of six horses in Saratoga’s Jim Dandy (G2).
In the months since the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, the three-year-old picture has been narrowed down a little bit, but not much. Every time a horse’s chances are basically eliminated, another horse sneaks into the mix. Summertime headline Grade 1 races like the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth and Travers Stakes at Saratoga, and even the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, which is often targeted by sophomores, have all come and gone, but provided only a small amount clarity in the division.
Maximum Security’s current iffy status only adds to the chaos. His Haskell win bolstered the already strong but polarizing argument Maximum Security has atop the division. Maximum Security’s credentials already included a win in the Florida Derby (G1), and many still support his claim as the rightful Kentucky Derby winner. Since the Derby, however, he passed on both the Preakness and Belmont, got beat by a lesser horse in Monmouth’s ungraded Pegasus Stakes, won the Haskell but then passed the Travers and now won’t run in the Pennsylvania Derby, either.
Maximum Security’s continued absence from key spots opens the door for even his staunchest supporters to start looking elsewhere for 2019’s top three-year-old. Therefore, you can see how important the Pennsylvania Derby becomes this year, particularly for War of Will. He has yet to do enough to solidify a claim as top 2019 three-year-old, but if he can add the Grade 1, $1 million Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby to his resume, his claim becomes a lot stronger. The only thing he’d be lacking is a victory on the racetrack over Maximum Security.
War of Will isn’t the only name in the mix, either. Code of Honor added his name into the Eclipse picture with his victory over Tacitus and others in the Travers, which he adds to his Fountain of Youth (G2) victory earlier in the season, as well as his third-place finish (2nd via DQ) in the Kentucky Derby. If he were to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup he could win the title. If he won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he would win the title.
The next important race in in terms of the three-year-old title will follow only one week after the Pennsylvania Derby at Belmont Park in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. While that race is not restricted to three-year-olds, both Code of Honor and Tacitus are pointing to the race, and a win in that spot over older horses, and each other, would vault either of them to the top the sophomore division, especially if War of Will loses.
Tacitus won the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) and Wood Memorial (G2) but since has been beaten in the Kentucky Derby and then settled second three times in a row in the Belmont, Jim Dandy, and Travers. He desperately needs a Grade 1 win to be considered a contender for divisional honors. He’d get it in the JC Gold Cup. Without a Grade 1 win, however, you can forget it.
To complicate things even further, contention in the Pennsylvania Derby goes deeper than just War of Will. A case could also be made at Parx this Saturday for Bob Baffert’s Improbable, who was second in the Arkansas Derby and fifth in the Kentucky Derby and recently won the ungraded Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar. A Baffert-trained horse has won the Pa. Derby 3 of the last 5 years.
Even Mr. Money has a chance at an upset in the Pennsylvania Derby – and in the race to be this season’s top sophomore. He has been expertly handled throughout the second half of the season by trainer W. Bret Calhoun with four consecutive Grade 3 victories in the Pat Day Mile, Matt Winn, Indiana Derby, and West Virginia Derby. In a year like this when no three-year-old division is dominant, it would be a mistake to overlook a hot horse on a roll like Mr. Money. With a Grade 1 win in the Pennsylvania Derby, in a year like this, even he would move himself into the discussion for the as yet unclaimed title as 2019’s top three-year-old based on his overall body of work and what would be a head-to-head win over Preakness-winner War of Will.
With Maximum Security on the sidelines for the Pennsylvania Derby, the rest of the three-year-old division marches on. If they blow it in the race for the three-year-old championship, this time they will need to blame someone other than the Churchill Downs stewards for their defeat.