How a modest race at a sneered-at racetrack became one of America’s marquee events

Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist (left, exercise rider Jonny Garcia aboard) is ponied around the track at Parx by Brandy Steenson yesterday. Photo: Taylor Ejdys/Equi-Photo

On Saturday afternoon at a little racetrack just outside Philadelphia, the top three finishers from this year’s Kentucky Derby will meet, for the third time this year.

In some racing circles, Parx Racing — the name of that little track — is more often derided than praised, not least of all for the name it was given in 2010 after 26 years of being Philadelphia Park and, before that, a decade of being Keystone Racetrack.

Parx — with its eye-catching red and orange logo, reflecting the color scheme of the casino that took up residence at the track in 2006 — can be viewed as a symbol of all that is bad about U.S. racing model: a small track that races year-round (or close to it), with low handle, few graded stakes, and purses fueled by casino revenue, a track that might not survive if the casino’s license didn’t depend on its existence.

Yet, over the last six years, Parx has transformed its flagship race, the Pennsylvania Derby, from a modest late-summer contest for second- or third-tier horses into a marquee event that attracts nationwide attention.

“We’ve been inundated from every corner of the country with requests from people wanting to come in to cover the race,” said Keith Jones recently. The track announcer, Jones does double duty as the track’s PR director, and, a week out from the race, media requests continue to come in. “When the race was on Labor Day, we’d get only a small number of media people to come out to cover it.”

Losing battle

The Pennsylvania Derby was first run in 1979 and had a steady spot on the racing calendar until the mid 1980s, when the track began moving it around from its traditional late May running to various weekends in the fall, settling on Labor Day in 1990.

“When I started working there [in 1999], the race was on Labor Day. It was too close to the Travers,” said Sal Sinatra, the former director of racing at Parx who is now the president and general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club, which runs Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course.

Jones, who’s worked at the track for 30 years, said: “There was no way we were going to be able to compete with the Travers. That’s obviously a losing battle. So we would get some of the less high-profile horses, or the late-blooming 3-year-olds.”

So, in 2011, the Pennsylvania Derby debuted in its new spot in late September,  about a month after the Travers and five or six weeks before the Breeders’ Cup Classic. While much about the move made sense, there was unease about making changes to a day that had become a holiday weekend tradition for local racing fans.

Significant change

“It wasn’t an easy thing to do,” said Jones. “There had been such a long-standing tradition of having the race on Labor Day. I give Parx credit for making what was a very significant change in the racing calendar, which has proven to be a boon to the quality of horses to come out and compete in this significant race.”  

But Sinatra wasn’t done. The purse for the Pennsylvania Derby had been raised from $750,000 to $1 million in 2007, a year after the race had been on hiatus as the track was being renovated. In 2013, he instituted a bonus designed to lure the best 3-year-old horses in the country to the Bensalem track.

“There was talk about raising the purse to $2 million, but I was against that,” he said. “I felt like you’d get that one unbeatable horse and only four or five horses to run against him. I thought trainer/owner bonuses would entice the best horses to run against each other.”

So in 2011, the track offered $50,000 bonuses to the owner and trainer of the horses that won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Haskell Invitational, and Travers if they ran in the Pennsylvania Derby. In 2013, those bonuses were written into the conditions of the race.

Call from D. Wayne Lukas

“At first,” said Sinatra, “trainers weren’t even aware of the bonus. I had to call them and tell them about it. Then we wrote it into the conditions, and the Monday after D. Wayne Lukas won the Travers [with Will Take Charge], he called me.

“‘Tell me about this bonus,’ he said. ‘I’ll be there.’”

Not only was he there, but he won, earning an additional $50,000 each for Lukas and owner Willis Horton.

This year, Parx was prepared to up the $1 million purse to $1.5 million if the winners of all three Triple Crown races showed up. They’ve had to settle for two of the three, with Nyquist (Kentucky Derby) and Exaggerator (Preakness) entered, but Belmont Stakes winner Creator done for the year.

The last year that the race was run on Labor Day was 2009, and the track handled $2.2 million that day, down a million dollars from each of the previous two years. But since the move from Labor Day, handle has steadily increased each year, to $5.9 million last year.

Blockbuster handle

And the effect of those bonuses? In 2014, they helped draw trainer Art Sherman and California Chrome, winner of that year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness, with the promise of $100,000 to both the owners and trainer as a result of those wins. California Chrome finished sixth, but Parx handled a blockbuster $10.4 million.

This week, trainer Doug O’Neill said both the timing and the bonus enticed him to ship the Derby winner east to run this weekend.

“Both were a big part of it,” he said of the decision. “I love the timing of the race. Nyquist has had time since the Haskell [on July 31] and there’s ample time to get him ready for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.”

In addition to seeing the winners of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, customers at Parx this Saturday will be treated to the presence of Songbird, the undefeated filly who will run in the Cotillion. Last year’s 2-year-old filly champion, Songbird has won all 10 of her races, most recently the G1 Coaching Club American Oaks and G1 Alabama at Saratoga.

The Cotillion was added to the Pennsylvania Derby day card in 2012, the first year it carried both G1 status and a $1 million purse. The day’s handle jumped 33 percent from the previous year.

That elusive Grade 1 status

But what about Labor Day? What about that tradition of running graded stakes races and of making the holiday an event?

Since 2007, the Turf Monster Stakes had been a Labor Day staple, and in 2012, the same year the Cotillion moved, Parx moved the G3 Greenwood Cup from its July date to the holiday. Joining those races is the G3 Smarty Jones.

“We created a big day for the fans on that holiday,” said Jones. “The tradition was to come to the track on Labor Day, and we still get good crowds; we wanted to create a good racing product for that day.”

With increased handle, more media coverage, and deeper, more talented fields showing up at Parx in September, the strategy conceived by Sinatra seems to have worked perfectly. With one notable exception: the Pennsylvania Derby has yet to earn G1 status.

“I thought for sure it was a slam dunk after 2014,” said Sinatra.

In 2013, winner Will Take Charge lost the Breeders’ Cup Classic by a nose and was voted that year’s 3-year-old champion. In 2014, winner Bayern went on to win the Classic.  

“How the race was not granted Grade 1 status last year is really a head-scratcher to me,” said Jones. “And with the horses that are expected to show up this year, with the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness winner — if it doesn’t happen again, something is terribly wrong.”

‘Stronger showing’ wanted

Grades of races are determined by the American Graded Stakes Committee, which last year comprised six members representing the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and five members who are racing officials. Criteria such as purse money, longevity of the race, integrity processes, and entry restrictions are considered, and the committee uses a workbook to assess the strengths of races based on the number of graded stakes winners that run in it. While there are certain objective standards that are considered, committee members also bring their own subjective considerations to the conversation.

“Typically,” said Andy Schweigardt, director of industry relations and development and secretary to the American Graded Stakes Committee, “when the committee looks at races to upgrade, it looks to see if the numbers for the race are above the 20th percentile for the level above it. The numbers for the Pennsylvania Derby are comparable to the Grade 1 races above it, but they would in fall in some of the statistical measures in the bottom 20th percentile.

“Given the number of Grade 1 races in the 3-year-old division, I think the committee wanted to see a little stronger showing before moving it up and creating another 3-year-old restricted Grade 1.”

When the committee convenes later this year, it will have some new numbers to consider for the Pennsylvania Derby: last year’s winner, Frosted, won the Met Mile and the Whitney Handicap this year, both G1 races, both in dazzling fashion, setting a record for both the margin of victory (14 1/2 lengths) and running time for the race.  

But that is a matter for later this year, a matter that is out of the hands of the people that have brought the Pennsylvania Derby out from the shadows of its prestigious summer counterparts, making it a lucrative and desirable stop on the way to the Breeders’ Cup.

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