12/16/2015 10:42AM

Jerardi: Pennsylvania Derby still searching for Grade 1 status

Barbara D. Livingston
Frosted wins this Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby in September.

Sam Elliott, the director of racing at Parx, was invited to attend the recent meeting of the American Graded Stakes Committee in Lexington, Ky., as an observer.

“As an observer, it was probably the most difficult seven hours in my life, where I couldn’t say a single word,” Elliott said.

Elliott had a specific interest in the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby, but he also was there just to see the process.

“The most important factor are the graded winners that are in there,” Elliott said. “I was surprised at the level of give and take. I was a little concerned how I was going to be there seven hours and not say anything, but it was pretty lively, and there wasn’t any rancor. They are clearly close colleagues, but there were some pretty good exchanges.”

There are 11 committee members – five racing secretaries and six Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association members. According to Elliott, it takes a simple majority to downgrade a race and a super majority (eight) to upgrade. His estimate was that 95 percent of the races didn’t even get discussed since it was clear that no change was necessary.

“The process is fair,’’ Elliott said.

There is a discussion if a race is close to being moved up or down. If the members do discuss a race, they then can choose to either vote or not vote.

“They discussed the Pennsylvania Derby a little bit and chose not to vote on it,’’ Elliott said. “So, it stayed where it was.”

Elliott had no issues with how the committee did its work.

“They take the burden of moving races, especially from [Grade] 2 to 1, very seriously, as they should,” Elliott said. “Those are the premier races, and [the Pennsylvania Derby] finds itself in the premier grouping, the glamour division, 3-year-olds going long.”

After all the discussion and votes were done, Elliott did get a chance to speak with the committee members.

“They don’t object to you being critical,” Elliott said. “I wasn’t really critical. I just told them I thought last year the race certainly should have been moved up. If it had been moved up last year, they wouldn’t have even considered dropping it because it performed as a Grade 1 again.”

The committee is looking at five-year rolling averages, so the Pennsylvania Derby is likely in a similar situation as the Arkansas Derby was six years ago. It took a few years after Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, and Curlin won that race at Oaklawn Park for it to be moved up to a Grade 1.

In 2013, eventual 3-year-old champion male Will Take Charge won the Pennsylvania Derby. Last year, California Chrome became the first Kentucky Derby winner to run in the race after winning the Derby. California Chrome did not run very well at Parx after a long layoff, but he eventually was voted Horse of the Year. Bayern, who won the 2014 Pennsylvania Derby, won the Breeders’ Cup Classic in his next start. This year’s Pennsylvania Derby was won by Wood Memorial winner Frosted. So, clearly, the race is headed in the right direction.

“We’ll just have to try harder next year,’’ said Elliott, who made a big run at Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. If Pharoah had run in the Pennsylvania Derby this year, Elliott almost certainly would not have been asking the committee why the race was not moved up.

After observing for all those hours, Elliott said: “I have no complaints. I was disappointed, but I think I understand a little better what we need to do to get it done.”

Parx needs to keep doing what it has been doing and do it over a slightly longer period. The bonus for horses who have won a Triple Crown race, the Haskell Invitational, or Travers certainly has been a helpful incentive. Elliott is thinking that Parx might tweak that a bit to interest the connections of even more Grade 1 winners.

Elliott’s goal for the 2016 Pennsylvania Derby is to have three Grade 1 winners and the winner of at least one of the Triple Crown races.

“We’ve essentially been performing like a Grade 1 with a Grade 2 next to our name,” Elliott said.

In the not-too-distant future, he would like his track’s signature race to perform like a Grade 1 and be a Grade 1.