09/15/2014 10:03AM

Watchmaker: Parx in spotlight with million-dollar stakes


September racing takes a serious turn Saturday with strong editions of the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby and the $1 million Cotillion Stakes at Parx Racing.

You can debate until you’re blue in the face whether 3-year-olds should be facing older opponents in premier stakes races after Labor Day (personally, I think it’s a tradition well worth bringing back into fashion). But you can’t argue how, in a few short years, Parx has managed to leverage its big 3-year-old races into one of September’s biggest racing days.

And this year, Parx seems to have caught lightning in a bottle. The Cotillion will have the undisputed leader of the 3-year-old filly division in Untapable, and, depending on your rankings, it also has the current second- and third-best members of this division in Stopchargingmaria and Sweet Reason.

The Pennsylvania Derby has lured none other than California Chrome, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and, depending on your perspective, either the top or second-best 3-year-old male in the land.

I realize that the Pennsylvania Derby to Breeders’ Cup path worked pretty well last year for Will Take Charge.

Will Take Charge, of course, won the Pennsylvania Derby going away from Moreno and then fell just Mucho Macho Man’s nose shy of winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic. I understand that the bonus clauses written right into the Pennsylvania Derby’s race conditions and involving some key divisional races that are especially pertinent this year are attractive. And I anticipate that Parx will douse the main track with as much water as necessary to avert that surface’s natural tendency toward a dead rail.

Nevertheless, I’m still a little surprised that this was the spot chosen for California Chrome’s first start since his unsuccessful attempt at a Triple Crown sweep in the Belmont Stakes. Incentives aside, it is tremendously sporting for his people to send him east yet again. But I have a nagging feeling that the Parx surface might not be an ideal fit for him, either in terms of style or familiarity.

And that goes double for Bayern. I still have a tremendous amount of respect for Bayern despite his Travers debacle, and I feel he is very capable around two turns, although I wonder if he might not be at his absolute best in extended one-turn races. But when Bayern won the Haskell, he did so riding the crest of an intense speed bias, and he wasn’t so fortunate on an even track at Saratoga. One factor that must be noted, however, is the projected pace scenario. The only one seemingly capable of keeping Bayern honest early besides California Chrome is C J’s Awesome, who is coming off a bias-aided win himself.

The Cotillion will, of course, mark the first start for Untapable since her unsuccessful venture against males in the Haskell. But it is important to note that whatever chance Untapable had going into the Haskell was gone due to a speed-biased surface that rendered closers such as her ineffective.

The surprise for me in the Cotillion is how some people have cast this race as a potential showdown for the 3-year-old filly championship. It is true that Untapable, Stopchargingmaria, and Sweet Reason each have two Grade 1 wins this season. But I don’t think simple math in any way defines what has transpired in this division this year.

Whereas Untapable crushed every single 3-year-old filly led up to face her this year, Stopchargingmaria’s season has been more about being in the right place at the right time and an Alabama win that was historically slow. And when Sweet Reason routes, she has shown to this point to be nowhere near as effective as she is when she goes around one turn.

For me, anyway, Untapable’s lead in her division is so huge right now that it would take an emphatic upset by one of her two main challengers Saturday to even the score, let alone turn the tables.