09/26/2012 1:55PM

Jerardi: Parx Racing's giant day thrilled and baffled

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Justin N. Lane
My Miss Aurelia (left) and Questing enter the stretch of the Grade 1 Cotillion at Parx Racing.

Unless you were around when the Keystone/Philadelphia Park/Parx Racing purses were $50,000 per day, what went down last Saturday might not be that meaningful. If you were there (as I was) back then, the day, with players betting $4.2 million on the 12-race card and $2 million on the three featured stakes races, was surreal.

They really did have a pair of $1 million races at the “Pha.” The fans got a microcosm of horse racing at the top levels – a stretch duel for the ages between two phenomenal fillies and a result that made absolutely no sense, a Mine That Bird/Giacomo special without the $100 payoff and rally from nowhere.

The big races – the Cotillion and Pennsylvania Derby – were run strangely run, with early fractions that could not have been slower. Some mistook those slow fractions for a slow racing surface. The track variant was actually –9 Beyer points, not nearly as fast as Pennsylvania Derby Day 2011, when it was –35 Beyer points and track records were set or nearly set in the Gallant Bob and the Pennsylvania Derby, but not slow either.

The four two-turn races before the big two had normal fractions for the class of horses that ran. The six-furlong Gallant Bob went in 1:09.08, after fractions of 21.41 seconds, 43.95, and 56.46. The Cotillion (25.19, 50.04, 1:14.74) and the Pennsylvania Derby (25.08, 49.37, 1:14.02) had silly slow fractions, considering the speed of the surface.

One could make a case that what looked like an edge for Questing by getting away with such slow fractions actually was an edge for My Miss Aurelia, keeping her in the race without having to do much running until the stretch. There, the much bigger filly, My Miss Aurelia, eventually wore down Questing in the final yards.

I think Questing is probably better off running like she did in the Alabama, setting super-quick fractions and simply running the chasers off their feet. I would suspect that is how she will run in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic, where her speed will be very dangerous at Santa Anita.

There also is the chance that unbeaten My Miss Aurelia is just this good, a filly that does not want to lose. The winning Beyer Speed Figure was only 96, mostly because the fractions were so slow it was impossible to get a big Beyer.

A few weeks ago, we were all wondering about a Breeders’ Cup centerpiece. Well, Friday no longer has that issue. What about a Ladies’ Classic with unbeaten My Miss Aurelia, unbeaten Awesome Feather, and defending champion Royal Delta, three Breeders’ Cup winners in the same race.

As for the horses running out in the middle of the track, that was the place to be Saturday. No doubt, Parx has its share of days when the outside is much better and the rail is a path to nowhere. It is not, however, always like that. In fact, the last racing day prior to the big day and the day after it were perfectly normal, with horses winning near the rail and away from it.

Sometimes, the track’s reputation is such that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, riders staying away from the rail even when the rail is a perfectly fine place to be.

If you are looking for an explanation of the Pennsylvania Derby, look elsewhere. Handsome Mike had one career win, down the hill on Santa Anita’s grass course in a maiden race last October. Give credit to owner J. Paul Reddam for being game with the colt, running him in seven consecutive graded stakes races. So, figuring all the top 3-year-olds were hurt, retired, or both, he sent a horse that had never hit 90 on the Beyer scale east to Philadelphia.

The race had almost no early speed, so, naturally, none of the jockeys seemed to want the lead. Favored Alpha acted up in the starting gate, got squeezed at the start, was rank in traffic, and then ended up diving to the rail on the first turn, never to extricate himself before fading in the stretch.

Meanwhile, Irad Ortiz had Handsome Mike, fast enough to be in front when the fractions were so slow and none of the other jockeys seemed interested in being up top, cruising away from the rail. When the field hit the stretch, you kept waiting for some horse to come and get Handsome Mike. Instead, Handsome Mike was getting away from the field near the finish line, getting a career-best 93 Beyer, a figure that should never be good enough to win a $1 million race for 3-year-olds. The final time (1:51.63 for 1 1/8 miles) was a function of the fractions and the ridiculous attrition rate among the top 3-year-olds.

With that, the $3 million day at Parx was about done. I get that some purists wonder about all this slots money supporting races that do not fit into any known racing tradition. I also get that the sport has changed dramatically in the racino era. This was the first giant race day at Parx. It won’t be the last.