The Week in Review: Does the Path to the Classic Run Through Parx


Hot Rode Charlie | Sarah Andrew


It was 35 years ago this weekend that Broad Brush bolted to the outside fence at the top of the stretch while on a clear lead in the Pennsylvania Derby, then amazingly re-rallied to claw back the lead for an improbable win.

They've long since rebranded Philadelphia Park to Parx, added a racino, and been awarded an upgrade of that track's premier stakes from Grade II to Grade I. But history tends to repeat, and that same quirky spot at the quarter pole proved eerily enigmatic yet again on Saturday, this time for Hot Rod Charlie (Oxbow), whose momentum exceeded his maneuverability while spinning out of the final bend in the Pennsylvania Derby.

His arch-rival, Midnight Bourbon (Tiznow), got cast adrift toward the crown of the course by “Chuck's” sudden centrifugal impulse. But both colts were back into stride within a few jumps of straightening into the lane, storming home through a :12.83 final eighth in which Hot Rod Charlie incrementally widened to a winning margin of 2 1/4 lengths at the wire. He earned the highest Beyer Sped Figure (111) by any 3-year-old this season in a two-turn race.

The drama (foul claim, inquiry, no DQ) generated by these two sophomores at Parx certainly wasn't the perilous sort supplied by their stretch run of the GI Haskell S. July 17, when Hot Rod Charlie shifted in and caused Midnight Bourbon to clip heels and dislodge his jockey, who escaped serious injury. Chuck's abrupt lane changing that afternoon did result in his number coming down at Monmouth Park, so his Pennsylvania Derby score registered as the colt's first Grade I win.

Prior to Saturday, Hot Rod Charlie had been edged out in his only other three Grade I attempts: he was second, beaten three-quarters of a length at 94-1 in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile; third, beaten one length in the Kentucky Derby; then second, beaten 1 1/4 lengths in the Belmont S. Two of those Grade I defeats were gallant tries behind the formidable divisional leader, the 8-for-9 lifetime 'TDN Rising Star' and juvenile champ Essential Quality (Tapit).

Now that the year's final Grade I dirt route for straight 3-year-olds has been run, those two loom as the top sophomores aiming for the GI Breeders' Cup Classic Nov. 6 at Del Mar.

Since the year 2000, seven 3-year-olds have defeated older horses in the Classic. Do the colts in this year's crop have a shot at knocking off older divisional stalwarts like Knicks Go (Paynter) and Maxfield (Street Sense)?

Essential Quality certainly rates as the most professional Classic aspirant among the 3-year-olds. This athletic gray always looks comfortable while on the prowl in his ever-dangerous stalk mode, and he has the ability to unleash an overdriven, deep-stretch torque that is not so much a sensational burst of power as a crushingly blunt display of sustained intensity. This is evident in Essential Quality's margins of victory. He doesn't win races by running up the score by many lengths. Rather, this colt knows what is required and simply does it, relishing the challenge of protracted stretch fights.

In the GI Runhappy Travers S., Essential Quality and Midnight Bourbon brushed and battled in determined lockstep through a final quarter mile clocked in an astoundingly fast :23.15 (the fastest two furlongs of that stakes in at least three decades). One concern is that back in April, when Essential Quality won the GII Toyota Blue Grass S. after another demanding stretch scrap (final eighth in :12.53), the effort seemed to sap him for the Kentucky Derby four weeks later, resulting in his only lifetime loss. This time around after a hard race, Essential Quality will train for the 10 weeks leading up to the Classic–meaning the concern now becomes too much of a time gap between starts.

Hot Rod Charlie, on the other hand, still gives the impression of a work in progress. This is not necessarily a knock against him. In fact, it suggests there is still a vein of raw talent beneath the surface that has yet to be fully mined and polished for optimal performance.

Chuck is a consistent speed horse who neither shies from adversity nor requires being on the lead to run effectively. Early in his career, it was easy to stamp him as an outlandish longshot who got lucky by cashing in on a spent speed duel, giving Essential Quality a brief scare in the Breeders' Cup. But after his breakthrough win in the GII Louisiana Derby (in which he gamely repulsed the repeated challenges of Midnight Bourbon) and a Kentucky Derby third (where, for a tantalizing moment in upper stretch, it looked as if Chuck had a chance to reel in the leaders), this colt's ability crystalized into a more reliable commodity.

Hot Rod Charlie still hasn't figured out how to seamlessly fuse the high-impact speed of his older brother (2019 sprint champ Mitole) with the no-nonsense staying power of his sire (Oxbow, the gutsy victor of the 2013 GI Preakness S.). But a bet on Chuck in the Classic will be a wager predicated on this colt being able to produce a performance that exceeds what we've already seen from him (and his peers) up to this point.

Medina Spirit (Protonico), the Kentucky Derby winner, had been entered in the Pennsylvania Derby but was withdrawn by trainer Bob Baffert earlier in the week based on tactical concerns over getting stuck with post position nine. Instead, the colt will start in the GI Awesome Again S. at Santa Anita Oct. 2. That nine-furlong start will come against 3-year-olds and up, but the field size is sure to be more to Baffert's liking. In the past three runnings, it has featured only five and six (twice) starters.

Medina Spirit–purchased for $1,000 at OBSWIN and $35,000 at OBSOPN–began the year far down the depth chart of Baffert's then-deep roster of 3-year-olds. It took two races before a mid-March operation to fix an entrapped epiglottis yielded positive results on the racetrack, but Medina Spirit's all-business, half-length Derby victory was accomplished under continuous pressure through the fastest final two Derby furlongs in a decade.

For certain, the ongoing saga over the colt's still-not-adjudicated betamethasone positive in the Derby and the subsequent banishment (and attempted banishment) of Baffert from major racing circuits has overshadowed Medina Spirit for the past four months. But he's still a plucky overachiever who outruns expectations. After a flat third in the Preakness, Medina Spirit won his late-summer comeback start, a wire job in the Shared Belief S. at Del Mar Aug. 29. He was hustled to the lead and continually hounded in that race, yet found another gear in the stretch as the competition withered behind him.

'TDN Rising Star' Life Is Good (Into Mischief) ran his record to 4-for-5 Saturday at Belmont Park with what amounted to a “public workout” win at 1-20 odds in the GII Kelso H. (just four horses started and only three finished). The former Baffert trainee was the early Derby favorite until he got sidelined in March with an ankle chip (since surgically repaired).

Now trained by Todd Pletcher, Life Is Good could be a fascinating Classic inclusion. But having never raced beyond 1 1/16 miles at this stage of the season, Pletcher has indicated that the GI Dirt Mile could be the more realistic Breeders' Cup option.

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