Connect takes advantage in Pennsylvania Derby; McMahon is one to watch
By Dick Powell
When Bob Baffert shipped ARROGATE (Unbridled’s Song) into Saratoga and the colt romped in the Travers Stakes (G1) in stakes-record time, it showed how weak this year’s crop of 3YOs were. As good as NYQUIST (Uncle Mo) might have looked winning the Kentucky Derby (G1) while still undefeated and EXAGGERATOR (Curlin) did taking the Preakness Stakes (G1) and Haskell Invitational (G1), emerging as a leader of the division, the reality is Arrogate exposed the lack of quality in the sophomore crop.
Understanding this requires you to understand a race in terms of the group of starters and not necessarily the individual horses. And Saturday’s Pennsylvania Derby (G2) serves as a perfect example. If you know going in that the group, as a whole, is relatively weak, you can look elsewhere even though you are going against two of this year’s classic winners.
Even though he was beaten in the Travers, CONNECT (Curlin) had some legitimate excuses in the running of the race and was lightly raced enough to give some level of confidence to supporters willing to draw a line through the Travers and give him another shot. Had he been one of this year’s 3YOs that had been through the grind of the Triple Crown and its prep season, I would not have liked him even with the same excuses that he had.
But with only three starts going into the Travers, Connect had trouble coming out of the gate and going into the first turn. He certainly earned another shot in the Pennsylvania Derby, especially with Baffert only sending multiple graded stakes winner CUPID (Tapit) to Parx Racing.
Besides being smart enough to handicap a race correctly, you need some luck and Connect had it in droves. A long-striding son of CURLIN (Smart Strike), he stayed down on the inside for most of the race and every time his rider Javier Castellano needed some room on the inside, the horse in front of him went to the outside and left the hole wide-open.
Castellano is brilliant when the big money is on the line and the 2016 Pennsylvania Derby will be an addition to his highlight reel. The amount of ground saved was clearly the difference between winning and losing since GUN RUNNER (Candy Ride) ran a sensational race but lost plenty of ground on both turns.
Still, even though the horse that saved ground wound up with the advantage, he had to be courageous to race in behind horses in tight quarters and Connect had no trouble in traffic. Gun Runner needs to use his natural speed to work out a better trip or draw a better post position next time.
SONGBIRD (Unbridled’s Song) was her usual self in the Cotillion Stakes (G1), the race before the Pennsylvania Derby. We are out of adjectives in describing her and now have to wait patiently for her to take on older mares in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) and eventually male competition. Until then, she is as dominant in her division as we have ever seen.
Hopefully, you watched the Oklahoma Derby (G3) from Remington Park on Sunday night. It was an exciting race and you got to see the next big riding star in America.
TEXAS CHROME (Grasshopper) was sent off as the 23-to-10 second choice in the wagering in an 11-horse field. C.J. McMahon had him between horses down the backstretch behind the early speed and tried to get out on the far turn for a clear run. When that didn’t work out, McMahon dropped down to the inside and set sights on STICKSSTATELYDUDE (First Dude) and Joel Rosario.
For some reason, when you see riders drop down to the inside in the homestretch it rarely works and with barely a hole to race through, McMahon came up inside of Rosario and the battle was on. Despite tight quarters, McMahon was all over Texas Chrome and able to surge past Rosario and win by a hard-earned half-length.
McMahon is winning at 28% overall in 2016 and an unbelievable 33% with his 148 route mounts this year. He is fearless, smart and way stronger than he looks. Horses respond to him and the next step is for him to try the big stage in order to prove that he can compete against the top jockeys in America. He is that impressive.