09/18/2014 10:55AM

Hovdey: Rich history, big money put Parx in spotlight

John Servis, trainer of the Pennsylvania-bred Smarty Jones, runs Joint Return in the $1 million Cotillion at Parx on Saturday.

There are any number of reasons to celebrate Pennsylvania as a place where Thoroughbred history has been made. Bill Hartack, a five-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, was born there. So was Sam Riddle, Man o’ War’s owner, and George Smith, aka Pittsburgh Phil, the famous horseplayer who was known by a nickname that combined the state’s two most notable towns.

Barbaro died there, but not before the veterinary angels at the University of Pennsylvania’s world-renowned New Bolton Center did everything in their power to save his life.

Jonathan Sheppard trains there at his Chester County stable of magical mystery that can only be found by traveling down several country lanes and through at least one looking glass.

A very good horse can be bred there, too, including With Anticipation, who won $1.5 million under Sheppard’s care and still lives on his farm. Alphabet Soup, who beat Cigar in the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Classic, was bred in Pennsylvania. So was Nobo Jack, who won $4 million in Japan, and Lil E. Tee, the winner of the 1992 Kentucky Derby.

Clearly, Pennsylvania has earned the right to be called the center of the Thoroughbred racing universe at least for a day, and that day comes Saturday, when Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome headlines the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing, formerly Philadelphia Park, and before that Keystone Racetrack, which opened in 1974 as racing at nearby Liberty Bell Park was winding down.

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No Kentucky Derby winner has ever contested the Pennsylvania Derby. Not even Smarty Jones, the Pennsylvania-bred hometown hero who was the most popular Thoroughbred to grace the Philadelphia scene since Man o’ War made a special appearance at what is now Rose Tree Park, just outside of town (an historical nugget courtesy of the website Colin’s Ghost).

John Servis trained Smarty Jones to win the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness before losing the only race of his life in the Belmont Stakes. Servis, based at Parx, will be front and center Saturday for the Pennsylvania Derby’s companion piece, the $1 million Cotillion Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. He will be running Joint Return in the Grade 1 event for the Main Line Racing Stables partnership, and for those who are from someplace else, “Main Line” has Philadelphia written all over it.

Joint Return, a daughter of Include, won the Calder Oaks last winter and the Our Mims at Delaware Park in June. But it was her close second-place finish in the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga in her most recent start that nearly put her name in lights.

“At the eighth pole, I was ready to jump out of the box,” Servis said. “When I saw her kick like she did, I thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ She ran so good.”

For Servis, it was nearly déjà vu all over again. The trainer won the 2000 running of the Alabama with Jostle, his first major stakes winner. Jostle went on to win the Cotillion in her next start, when the race was worth $200,000. It seemed like a lot at the time.

Joint Return is coming right back in the Cotillion against Stopchargingmaria, who beat her by less than a length in the Alabama, and Untapable, who has been untouchable in four races against fillies this year.

“It’s a pretty salty field,” Servis conceded. “But our filly always shows up, and she seems to have improved a lot since we put the blinkers on her for her last race. It’ll be just a question of if she’s good enough.”

Supporting the Pennsylvania Derby and Cotillion on the filthy-rich Saturday program – which features a $100,000 allowance race, an $88,000 straight maiden race, and a $64,000 race for $25,000 claimers – will be the $100,000 Alphabet Soup Handicap for statebreds and the $300,000 Gallant Bob for sprinters.

No one’s kidding himself, though. Parx Racing has bought its way to the respectability of Pennsylvania Derby Day with help from the Parx casino, located a comfortable stroll from the racetrack entrance. The purse bounty has been accompanied by what has become a familiar backlash across North America, wherein horse racing is no longer seen as the necessary entry point for slot interests but as an undeserving recipient of state funds and a drag on casino profits.

At least Parx horsemen have something to show for it.

“The legislature said the casino had to be attached to the racetrack, but the casino didn’t want that,” Servis said. “Since the horsemen had to sign off, we said, ‘Build us new barns, and we will.’ So, they did, and they are beautiful.”

The older barns worked just fine for Smarty Jones, right up until the final yards of the 2004 Belmont, where he was caught by Birdstone. Smarty never raced again. A decade later, California Chrome came up short in his attempt to win the Triple Crown, finishing in a dead heat for fourth in the Belmont. The Pennsylvania Derby marks his return, with Victor Espinoza back in the saddle.

“I was disappointed,” Servis said of the Belmont result. “In his other races, you could see that Espinoza had horse under him every step of the way. If anything, running down inside horses like he did, you could tell he didn’t want to be there. Between that and the grind of the Triple Crown, it just caught up with him.”

Clearly, the trainer was speaking from painful experience.

“Yes, I am,” Servis replied. “But it’s great to see the Derby winner come back. And I’m glad he’s here.”