09/23/2012 10:38AM

My Miss Aurelia, Questing, and the Pa. Derby

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Again, because it bears repeating even if I mentioned it in this space just last week, never underestimate a champion, especially an undefeated one.

We got another vivid example why we shouldn’t in Saturday’s Cotillion at Parx Racing. On paper, the matchup between Questing and My Miss Aurelia shouldn’t have been close. Questing had become the ranking 3-year-old filly in the nation on the strength of brilliant recent victories in the CCA Oaks and Alabama. My Miss Aurelia, meanwhile, had only just returned from a long layoff with a less-than-pretty overnight sprint stakes win, and was going to have to go two turns in the Cotillion for the first time in almost 11 months.

In the Alabama, Questing earned a 106 Beyer Figure, her second triple-digit Beyer from her last three starts. My Miss Aurelia had never come close to approaching that Beyer level.

And on top of it all, Questing figured to have complete control of the Cotillion pace.

Although Questing beat many of the best 3-year-old fillies around in her recent stakes scores, it is also true that not one of them was a champion, let alone the sort of overwhelming champion My Miss Aurelia was in her division last year. And as true champions often have a knack of doing, My Miss Aurelia rose to the occasion, overcame all the disadvantages, and though the difference at the wire was only a head because Questing is still a tremendous filly. My Miss Aurelia beat her. And beat her on the square.

That’s right. On the square. There have been reports that the main track at Parx Saturday was loose, and maybe not to Questing’s liking. Maybe so. But even if the track was loose, it was still capable of yielding fast times. Very average 3-year-old stakes sprinters posted fractions of 21.41 seconds and 43.95 in the Gallant Bob Stakes one race before the Cotillion, so Questing had an enormous tactical advantage when she got loose through fractions of 25.19 and 50.04. Yet My Miss Aurelia, after prompting, still came and hooked Questing, and outfinished her after a thrilling stretch-long battle.

Folks are also pointing out that under the allowance conditions of the Cotillion, Questing had to concede seven points to My Miss Aurelia. This is indeed a fact. But I don’t at all buy the implication that this was the reason for the outcome of the photo. Seven pounds to an 1,100 pound horse is the equivalent to 1.3 pounds to a 200 pound human. Do you think for one second that a footrace between two NFL strong safeties would be decided because one had a buzz cut and the other had Troy Polamalu-type hair? The notion is ridiculous.

As satisfying as the Cotillion was as an event, the Pennsylvania Derby was about equally unsatisfying. And that’s saying something because with a paucity of mobile 3-year-olds left this season, no reasonable person could have had high expectations for this race. But even tempered Pennsylvania Derby expectations were not met when Handsome Mike, whose previous claims to fame in seven straight unsuccessful graded stakes starts were a second in the Generous on turf last fall and a third in the El Camino Real Derby on synthetic over the winter, drew off to score as the longest short in the seven-horse field.

The big disappointment in the Pennsylvania Derby was Alpha, who finished next-to-last as the 3-5 favorite. Now, I’m not making any excuses for Alpha because he was bad on Saturday, but he was rank early, and he did race near the inside most of the way. And that leads to the big problem with the main track at Parx Racing. If Parx Racing races 200 days a year, then the rail there is absolute death about 198 of those days. It’s a constant factor obvious to anyone who watches races from there. But as horseplayers, it is up to us to make chicken salad out of it, and I picked up a couple of horses who ran there Saturday. Il Villano raced near the rail every step of the Gallant Bob and was just nailed for third. Stephanoatsee ran on the rail every step of the Pennsylvania Derby, and yet was beaten less than a length for second. I’ll be betting both back, providing, of course, they are in suitable spots.