03/04/2014 12:22PM

Dick Jerardi: Penn Gaming Racing Challenge raises tracks' profile

Barbara D. Livingston
Rydilluc wins the inaugural Penn Mile at Penn National in June.

The two Penn National Gaming tracks in the Mid-Atlantic region, Charles Town and Penn National, have carved out a significant stakes presence every spring with the $1.5 million Charles Town Classic and now the $500,000 Penn Mile.

Those races are part of the first Penn Gaming Racing Challenge, which began in January with the Houston Ladies Classic night at Sam Houston and has five events remaining. The Challenge awards points to owners, trainers, and jockeys based on participation and results. The winners of the yearlong series will get waivers of stakes fees at Penn Gaming tracks for a year and a trip to Penn National Gaming’s M Resort in Las Vegas.

The Charles Town Classic, won last year by Game On Dude, and the four other events will be shown on HRTV.

“We value our relationship with HRTV and look forward to them and their talent showcasing our events in 2014,” said Chris McErlean, vice president of racing for Penn National Gaming. “HRTV has been there every step of the way with the events at Charles Town, and we look forward to partnering with them again as we try and grow the events at our other properties in a similar fashion.”

The Charles Town Classic is set for April 19 and is the richest race for Thoroughbreds in North America outside of the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup.

“The Charles Town Classic has grown into a premier racing event,” said Scott Daruty, president of HRTV. “We are pleased to offer the Charles Town Classic, together with the other races in the Penn Gaming Racing Challenge to our national audience of racing enthusiasts.”

[MID-ATLANTIC RACING: Complete DRF coverage, weekly video previews]

The Penn Mile is set for May 31. The Charles Town Race for the Ribbon program on Sept. 20 will be topped by the track’s newest graded stakes, the Grade 3, $500,000 Charles Town Oaks.

The final two events in the Penn Gaming Racing Challenge will be on Thanksgiving Eve, Nov. 26: the Land of Enchantment Day at Zia Park and Penn National’s $200,000 Fabulous Strike Handicap, won last year by Ben’s Cat.

Quick start for Rodriguez

Israel Rodriguez got his first ride in the United States last Friday at Laurel Park, winning the fifth race on Inspeightofthegold for trainer Juan Vazquez. He was 3 for 36 at Camarero in Puerto Rico this year before coming to Maryland.

“He will be the next Carrasco,” Vazquez predicted in the winner’s circle.

That would be something. In 2013, Victor Carrasco became the 10th Maryland-based rider to win the Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice. He won 215 races, and his mounts earned $4.35 million.

Elliott keeps winning at Parx

It has been a decade since Stewart Elliott won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and almost the Triple Crown aboard Smarty Jones, but the 49-year-old rider just keeps winning races at Parx.

This year, he is 16-8-6 from 63 mounts. In his career, which began in 1981, he has 4,613 wins from 29,163 rides and mount earnings of $91.6 million.

Elliott was a very good jockey before Smarty Jones and is still a very good rider today. But 2004 was obviously his year of years, with 262 wins and mount earnings of $14.5 million, helped along by that Oaklawn Park $5 million bonus.

Some have criticized Elliott’s ride aboard Smarty Jones in the Belmont Stakes, but the result was more about circumstances than anything he did or did not do in that race.

If you want to watch Elliott at his very best, go back and watch the Derby just after the finish line the first time. Smarty Jones was in the middle of a five-horse scrum. If Elliott had been passive, the colt might have been behind half the field coming out of the first turn. Instead, he was aggressive, and so was his mount. They both wanted clear running. The rest is history.

◗ Jose Montano won the 2012 Eclipse Award as top apprentice after winning 225 races. He was having another great season in 2013, with 198 winners, when he broke a leg in early October. He is just getting back to riding at Charles Town and had seven wins, five seconds, and three thirds from his first 25 rides.