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Racing At The Jersey Shore

The Pennsylvania Derby Brings Me Back to Philadelphia Park

In the late 1990’s I had separated from my first wife and I was out on my own again.  I needed something to fill the voids in my life.  Fortunately I would soon start dating my current wonderful wife and I got to let horse racing back into my life.  A friend of mine was starting out training thoroughbreds, so we claimed a three year-old colt at Delaware Park.  We shipped Spearfish up to his new home at Philadelphia Park.
 
So began a fantastic phase of my racetrack education. During the school year it was weekends and in the summer there were many more early mornings spent on the backside of Philly Park.  In barn 14 I learned everything from rolling bandages to hot walking Spearfish after his morning exercise.  I am pretty sure that mucking stalls was my specialty.  I got first hand view of horses getting medication and I learned about the life of the low level claimers that filled the barns.

In the photo, that’s me on the left, wearing the stylish 1995 Haskell Hat, with Spearfish and the trainer.
 
Writing about the upcoming Pennsylvania Derby has me thinking about those days with Spearfish.  No Spearfish did not make it to the Derby in his three year-old season, but he did get to the winner’s circle in July of 1998.  Interestingly he won his race when my wife and I were in London on our honeymoon.  I had to call the racing office from a pay phone during intermission at the theatre to find out about the win.
 
On Saturday, September 24th, the 31st Pennsylvania Derby will be run at Parx Racetrack.  It is really hard for me to say Parx because when the slots first came to Philadelphia Park they took over the whole place.  They left only a very tiny space by the paddock for the horseplayers.  It was there or trek up to the fifth floor.  We were cast aside and ignored.
 
It took years, but today the building, that was first Keystone racetrack and then Philadelphia Park, is now beautifully renovated and shared by horseplayers, the table games, slots, and a bustling poker room. 
 
The Pennsylvania Derby was first run in 1979 at Keystone on Memorial Day with the Woody Stephens trained Smarten taking the winners share of the $100,000 purse. In 1981 the race became a grade three stake.
 
Philadelphia Park was purchased in 1985 when Robert Brennan, of the helicopter commercials and “Come Grow With Us” slogan, and International Thoroughbred Breeders bought the track for $40 million.  Two British bookmakers were the next owners in 1990 with their Greenwood Racing group.  They had to wait for years for slots to be legalized in the state.
 
In 2004, the PA Derby was moved to Labor Day and received grade two status.  The first $1,000,000 purse came in 2007. Table games and a new casino building near the track brought the new name of Parx in 2010.  That same year the race shifted to late September hoping to find a better place as a prep for the Breeders Cup.
 
Most notably, the Pennsylvania Derby has been won by many horses that have gone on to have million dollar careers.  The 1987 edition which had quite a rich field, was won by Afleet, who went on to run third in the Breeders Cup Sprint. Lost Code, a winner of over $2 million finished second, and another millionaire Homebuilder came in third.
 
The 1986 PA Derby winner, Broad Brush, was one of the most heralded winners. That year he won the Wood Memorial while on his way to a third place in the Kentucky Derby behind Ferdinand and another third in the Preakness behind Snow Chief, who would become three year-old champ.  Broad Brush ended his career with earnings of $2,656,793.
 
Today the PA Derby entices entrants with $50,000 bonuses for winners of the Triple Crown races and the Travers.  The bonus has secured the entry of this year’s Belmont winner Ruler On Ice.  He is joined in the field by Bill Mott’s To Honor And Serve, the Travers runner up Rattlesnake Bridge, and six others. The Pennsylvania Derby will be run as race 11 on Saturday’s 12 race card. 

 

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Older Comments about The Pennsylvania Derby Brings Me Back to Philadelphia Park...

Spearfish got claimed from us after about a year and then claimed again. That trainer got him to climb the claiming ladder and win 4 races in a very short period of time. Spearfish was them claimed and disappeared forever. We eventually heard what happened. It is sad that there are a few trainers that don't care about the condition of their horses. I really do believe that those types are the exceptions in racing and that most trainers do care about their horses.
Oh, by the way, that was 1980. And, thanks Matt for your story.
I remember a horse that ran 5th in the Pa Derby, but came back about two weeks later, and ran in the Belmont(at that time, the Pa Derby was in late May). His name was Temperence Hill. He had won the Arkansas Derby, coming from out of the clouds. He bypassed the first two legs in the Triple Crown, but went next in the Pa Derby. I remember reading the description of his race, and it said that he was in sixth place(dead last), and started to make his move at the half-mile pole, only to stop after passing one horse. I thought that wasn't his running style, and then, lo and behold, he's entered in the Belmont. Why would he run, when he showed nothing in the Pa Derby? Needless to say, he went off at 53-1, and paid $108.80. Unfortunately, there was no simulcasting at that time, so I got 15-1. Bummer!!! But, then again, thanks for the advent of simulcasting!!!
Thanks for taking us on the ride of memories through the history of Keystone-Philadelphia-Parx, Matt. I used to frequent the place in the late 80's and saw many of those Pennsylvania Derbies you speak of. Broad Brush's performance was truly amazing ... so much so that I will write about it this week! P.S. - I think I remember the name Spearfish ... is that possible?

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Meet Matt Shifman

In the 70’s I was another one of those kids that went to the track with their fathers, and I immediately became enthralled with the excitement and challenges of handicapping.  And then the charisma and dominance of Secretariat gave me a hero to follow. To this day, I still get emotional when I hear Chic Anderson’s call of the 1973 Belmont, “Secretariat is moving like a tremendous machine”.

 
There have been many great horses run at the shore. In 1976 I watched Majestic Light win the Monmouth Invitational, now the Haskell, in track record time, defeating Honest Pleasure, the big favorite who was in from New York.  This was one of my first big wins at the track.
 
In the 80’s, as a disciple of Andy Beyer, I made my own speed figures because they were not available to the public. Needless to say I visited Monmouth frequently to test out the “figs”.
 
The 90’s allowed me to learn about the backstretch as a part owner of a few claimers that were stabled at Philadelphia Park.  Not a typical owner, I mucked stalls, cooled out the horses, and watched morning works.  Also, I met my wife and discovered that her grandfather bred, owned, and raced thoroughbreds on the West Virginia, Maryland circuit.  Today our office is decorated with winner’s circle pictures and a vast collection of Kentucky Derby glasses.
 
Today’s electronic age makes it so easy to gather information about racing.  I hope you use this blog to learn about Racing at the Jersey Shore.