11/04/2014 11:53AM

Jerardi: Pennsylvania tracks hit the nail on the head with event days

Barbara D. Livingston
Untapable wins the Breeders' Cup Distaff on Oct. 31 at Santa Anita Park.

Whenever anybody asks me about the state of horse racing, I tell them it is an event-driven sport without enough “events.” Whatever happens on the other 364 days, the Kentucky Derby remains incredibly popular. In fact, you could make a numbers-based argument that it may be more popular than it has ever been. I think that is also true of the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes when a Triple Crown is on the line.

Everyday racing no longer sells. Events sell more than ever. It is why Keeneland, Del Mar, and Saratoga remain so popular. They are unique, and their meets are not endless.

I live in Pennsylvania, where racing is a year-round sport at Parx and Penn National. One could argue that shorter meets might make for a better overall game in the state, but the argument is moot at the moment because we have year-round racing and it is not likely to change anytime soon.

What the two tracks have done in the last few years is create “events.” First, Parx put the Cotillion and Pennsylvania Derby on the same September Saturday in 2012, two $1 million races back to back as a final Breeders’ Cup prep for straight 3-year-olds. Last year, Penn National created Penn Mile Day, a race for 3-year-olds on grass between the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

Parx created buzz in 2012 and 2013. The track got a $10 million handle in 2014 when Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome and Kentucky Oaks winner Untapable appeared at the track, located just north of the Philadelphia line.

Penn National put its Mile with a few other stakes and instantly had a serious day as everyone caught their breath between Triple Crown races.

So how successful have these Pennsylvania “events” become in just a few years? This year, the winners of the three races accounted for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Distaff, and Turf Sprint. That is how you promote your races.

The day after Untapable won the Cotillion, trainer Steve Asmussen put her on a plane for California. And when it was time for Friday’s Distaff, the 3-year-old filly ran right back to her dominant spring form, ending a perfect year against her own sex. And who knows what might have happened in the Haskell if the rail had not been so live and she was not stuck outside the whole way. When she had big time between races, she almost always delivered a very big performance.

After breaking a 40-year-old track record when he blew away the field in the Pennsylvania Derby, Bayern headed right back to his Santa Anita base. And Bob Baffert had his horse ready to run the race of his life in the Classic. The 2013 Pennsylvania Derby winner, Will Take Charge, was a nose short in last year’s Classic. This year, Bayern’s nose dropped down on the wire just in time.

Without rehashing the start and what may have changed if it had been clean, nobody can really argue that Bayern did not run brilliantly. It felt to some like his Haskell and Pennsylvania Derby wins were flukes because of the speed-favoring surfaces. In the Classic, Bayern demonstrated that he has a will to go with all that speed. The chasers had chances to go by and just could not.

How good was the Pennsylvania Derby form? That was Tapiture, second in the Pennsylvania Derby, running second to Goldencents in Friday’s BC Dirt Mile. And that was California Chrome proving to the clueless just how talented he is by running the best Beyer Speed Figure of his life when third in the BC Classic five months after surviving the brutal Triple Crown.

I was at Penn National the day Bobby’s Kitten won the Penn Mile. You know when you are absolutely certain you have seen a star that is going to win major races. I left the track convinced Bobby’s Kitten had the talent to beat anybody’s horse on grass.

So I was shocked when he ran so poorly in the Belmont Derby and surprised he did not hold on to win the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes. I was heartened by his third in the Woodbine Mile, but still felt like there was more there.

So did Chad Brown, who made every right move over the weekend. Was there a more impressive winner on Friday than Lady Eli? And how in the world did Bobby’s Kitten get up in time to win the Turf Sprint? He was last when they came off the hill and about 14 wide when they crossed the dirt back onto the grass. His burst in the final 100 yards was among the most amazing things I have ever seen at a racetrack. When I saw it, I remembered what I felt that Saturday at Penn National. Bobby’s Kitten, it turned out, was every bit as serious as I thought.

So Untapable, Bayern, and Bobby’s Kitten for a Pennsylvania Event Days trifecta at the Breeders’ Cup, proving the point that if you give the owners of really good horses an incentive to run at your racetrack, they will come and keep paying dividends long after they leave.