Racing Roundtable: Penn Derby Day and Churchill Downs After Dark

September 26th, 2023

The Roundtable gang of James Scully, Kellie Reilly, and Vance Hanson are back to comment on the weekend action highlighted by Pennsylvania Derby Day at Parx and Downs After Dark at Churchill Downs

What did we learn from the Penn Derby and Cotillion?

James Scully: Saudi Crown impressed recording his first stakes win in the Pennsylvania Derby (G1), netting a 108 Brisnet Speed rating for the half-length decision, and the progressing colt can put himself in the discussion for champion three-year-old male with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Santa Anita. After establishing a solid pace on a short advantage, the gray son of Always Dreaming surged to a clear lead in upper stretch, and Saudi Crown earned a 111 Late Pace number after comfortably holding runner-up Dreamlike safe on the wire.

His career debut didn’t come until mid-April, and Saudi Crown has reeled off 104-106-108 Speed ratings in three stakes appearances, finishing a nose second in the Dwyer (G3) and Jim Dandy (G2) before breaking through over a sloppy track at Parx. I don’t know whether 10 furlongs will prove to be an optimal distance, and he possesses the same run style as top Classic contender Arabian Knight, but Saudi Crown belongs in the Classic discussion. He may have more to offer for Brad Cox

Ceiling Crusher made all the running in the Cotillion (G1), withstanding the late challenge of presumptive three-year-old filly champion Pretty Mischievous by a half-length, and the speedy California-bred daughter of Mr. Big is coming on for Doug O’Neill, winning two consecutive graded stakes over open rivals. She’ll bring speed to the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1), but Ceiling Crusher doesn’t appear fast enough to defeat top-class elders, equaling a career-best 98 Speed rating in the Cotillion. In three-year-old filly dirt routes, Speed numbers have been low in all season.

Kellie Reilly: The dynamics of classy speed on a sloppy track influenced the results to some degree, although Saudi Crown would have been a totally formful winner of the Pennsylvania Derby regardless. Considering that he had nearly staved off champion Forte in identical conditions in the Jim Dandy (G2) at Saratoga, and there was no Forte-caliber rival at Parx, Saudi Crown ran up to expectations. A few others didn’t do themselves justice, perhaps most notably Reincarnate, who might have hounded him more early on a fast track – or from a better post position. The fact that Dreamlike rallied for a close second, with a six-length gap to third, implies that we shouldn’t lean too heavily on the result. Saudi Crown confirmed his status as a rising force in the division, but this wasn’t exactly the Travers (G1) or the Pacific Classic (G1). We’ll know more about how far he’s come when he lines up against the heavyweights.

The Cotillion winner was arguably more reliant on conditions. To be fair, Ceiling Crusher’s Brisnet Speed ratings made her eminently logical. However much the slop buoyed her on the front end, it certainly militated against Occult, who had very little chance of successfully rallying from last given how the track was playing. Yet Occult managed to get up for a respectable third, making her the one to upgrade coming out of the race. Runner-up Pretty Mischievous might not have been in love with the track, but she ran pretty much on par (according to her Speed figures), and this loss could be costly in the Eclipse voting for the three-year-old filly title. Her claim rests on her narrow victories in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) and Acorn (G1) earlier in the season, and the door is ajar if a flashier aspirant can finish the year on a high note.

Vance Hanson: The results were entirely formful and it's no surprise that speed was beneficial over such a soupy track. The Cotillion was the more significant of the two races, given the presence of three-year-old filly division leader Pretty Mischievous, and I don't think she lost much championship stature in defeat due to the underfoot conditions and pace flow.

Ceiling Crusher is reportedly taking a pass on the Breeders' Cup altogether and I wouldn't be surprised if Pretty Mischievous did as well. The nine-furlong Distaff (G1) is probably a stretch and her speed figures are not on par with the best of the older fillies and mares. Still, it would take a surprise step up in form from someone else (e.g. Randomized, Wet Paint) in that race to snare the title away from Pretty Mischievous, and those odds I think remain long. 

Who impressed on Churchill's Downs After Dark program?

JS: Brad Cox won a pair of stakes, and Everso Mischievous will be moving to graded competition following his convincing triumph in the Harrods Creek. A maiden winner on the Kentucky Derby undercard, the Into Mischief colt has won two straight and is unbeaten from three starts at seven furlongs, breaking his maiden and capturing an entry-level allowance at Saratoga.

Xigera left a favorable impression switching back to dirt in the Seneca Overnight S., romping by six lengths. You Ain’t Poppin, a two-year-old debut winner earlier on the program, also deserves mention. By 2022 leading freshman sire Bolt d’Oro, the Brendan Walsh-trained colt got up late to prevail by a half-length at six furlongs and registered a respectable 90 Speed rating. You Ain’t Poppin hails from a hard-hitting female family with a lot of stakes performers, and his career is off to a promising start.

KR: Xigera delivered a lights-out performance in the Seneca Overnight S., implying that maybe the useful turf filly really wanted to be a dirt campaigner all along. By 2016 Kentucky Derby champ Nyquist, like sensational Alabama (G1) winner Randomized, Xigera finished 1 1/16 miles in a swift 1:41.92 while racking up a 107 Brisnet Late Pace rating. Granted, Churchill is known for being conducive to turfy types, so I could be guilty of overreacting to one show-stopping display. Still, the way she traveled through the race, like a coiled spring, and eagerly put her foes away, demands that she get an opportunity at a higher level on the main track for Phil Bauer and the Rigney Racing team. 

Honorable mention goes to the consistent Big Data, who looked as if he’d made the winning move in the 1 3/16-mile Bourbon Trail S., only to be worn down late by Slip Mahoney. Big Data was coming off a score in the 1 1/8-mile Super Derby, where he beat next-out Oklahoma Derby (G3) upsetter How Did He Do That. The well-named son of Cloud Computing will have no shortage of options back at that more typical distance, and he’s one to follow. 

VH: I'd echo the sentiments about Xigera in the Seneca. Here was a filly who hadn't even been tried on the dirt since a rough-trip fourth (placed third) behind division champion Wonder Wheel in the Alcibiades (G1) last October, but who now looks several lengths better on dirt compared to turf, a surface over which she is a stakes winner.

Although it's great connections have plenty of multi-surface options for Xigera going forward, a race like the Falls City (G2), which is normally run on Thanksgiving Day at Churchill, should certainly be on her radar now. 

What else caught your eye over the weekend?

JS: Xigera’s dirt potential if she can carry her form forward from the Seneca.

A troubled third (elevated one spot via DQ) when trying dirt in last year’s Alciabides (G1), the Nyquist filly switched back to turf for next four outings. The dark bay recording a listed win at Ellis this summer, the Tepin, but was well-beaten in two graded attempts, and her Seneca performance suggests she’ll be more effective on the main track.

Xigera earned a 101 Brisnet Speed rating for her 6 1/4-length win in the Seneca, a number that would be competitive in any dirt route stakes for three-year-old fillies in 2023. By comparison, Pretty Mischievous has failed to earn a triple-digit number in 10 career starts. Xigera will have to face elders moving forward, but given the lack of depth in the dirt distaff division, she’s a candidate to make a serious impact off an eye-opening performance in the Seneca.

KR: Nobody Listens deserves a special tribute, since it’s sadly the last time he could be mentioned in this space. After skipping through the mire – in better days known as the Parx turf course – to score a new high in Saturday’s Turf Monster (G3), and inspire Breeders’ Cup dreams, the Indiana-bred tragically died in a freak incident while traveling back home. Nobody Listens was just the kind of blue-collar hero who attracts a fan club as he makes it on the big stage, and his back-to-back stakes wins at Parx were definitely elevating his profile beyond his Horseshoe Indianapolis base. 

As a five-year-old gelding, Nobody Listens had every right to become a mainstay on the national sprint scene. A marvel of honesty and consistency, the gray won stakes on dirt, turf, and the Tapeta at Turfway Park, while compiling a career record of 26-14-7-1, $704,230. Heartfelt condolences to owners Matt Kwiatkowski, Jason Kaylor, and Roger Browning; trainer Tim Eggleston and all who cared for him; and breeders Southern Chase Farm, Karen Dodd, and Greg Dodd. 

VH: The wet conditions undoubtedly played a role in producing such a lopsided result, but Next literally ran off the screen in the 1 1/2-mile Greenwood Cup (G3) at Parx, winning by an official margin of 25 lengths. The five-year-old gray is very much used to winning big and, aside from a season-opening loss in the Isaac Murphy Marathon at Churchill Downs, has proven virtually untouchable over the past year in the handful or so 12-furlong plus stakes on dirt scheduled around the country. His next stop is a title defense of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (G2) at Santa Anita on Breeders' Cup weekend.

Next has proven to be a "throwback" in the nicest sense of the word, a true main track stayer. Makes one pine for a two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) again.