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.