Improbable inherits favorite’s role in Penn Derby

By Ron Flatter  ( 

Improbable, shown winning last year’s Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs, has inherited the favorite’s role for Saturday’s $1 million Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby at Parx. (Coady Photography via Churchill Downs)

Las Vegas


Maximum Security was supposed to be there Saturday. But he is not. And so the year of the absent 3-year-olds continues.


What colic did this week was remove the disqualified Kentucky Derby winner from the highly anticipated $1 million Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby. Maximum Security was the favorite (9-5 morning line, 7-4 Bovada, 2-1 in Europe via Oddschecker) for Saturday’s 5:48 p.m. EDT feature at Parx Casino and Racing 20 miles northeast of Philadelphia. Now he is another name on list of highly regarded horses with low attendance scores.


“He’s wiped out,” Maximum Security’s trainer John Servis told the Parx media team. “The good thing is that he that he doesn’t need surgery.”


The bad thing is that the obvious pacesetter this weekend is out of the race. Four stalkers and a pair of closers are left to go the 1⅛ miles on a dry, main track. If Quirin Speed Points are any indication, this summer’s buzz horse Mr. Money (2-1, 9-4, 11-4) could take the early lead from his outside post, but he will not be alone.


When he won last month’s West Virginia Derby, also at nine furlongs, Mr. Money was clocked at tepid fractions of 24.72, 49.20 and 1:12.99 for the first three quarter-miles. He was never more than 1½ lengths off a lead that he took for good at the top of the stretch.


After finishing a distant third to Maximum Security this summer in the Haskell Invitational, Spun To Run (8-1, 9-1, 9-1) chased more honest fractions on the way to winning the Grade 3 Smarty Jones, a wet, 8½-furlong race just 18 days ago at Parx. Sired by Hard Spun and trained by Juan Carlos Guerrero, it was Spun To Run’s third win on a track that will be new to the other five colts in the field. It also brought him a Brisnet speed rating of 110, the best coming into the race.


But the quality of horses that Mr. Money and Spun To Run have beaten is not up to the level that have gone eyeball to eyeball with Bob Baffert’s shipper Improbable (8-5, 7-4, 13-8). Another pace chaser that is still trying to match his 3-for-3 start as a 2-year-old, Improbable lost by a length to Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby, found his way through traffic to finish fifth (promoted to fourth) in the Kentucky Derby and was favored in the Preakness before finishing a fractious sixth. After a break, Improbable came back last month to win the $100,000 Shared Belief at Del Mar. He will be favored Saturday.


“It’s a short field,” said Baffert, who has Mike Smith riding Improbable this weekend. “He just has to break well. That’s about it. You’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game. Every Grade 1 is a tough race.”


One question with Improbable is how will he respond this time to wearing blinkers. This will be his second race in a row with them and his third overall. They obviously suited them last time out, but he seemed bothered by them when he lost to Omaha Beach in Arkansas.


A stalker with soft speed ratings, War Of Will (4-1, 9-4, 2-1) fired a bullet, four-furlong workout last Saturday at Belmont Park. But he has finished better than fifth only once in his last five races, and that came in a dream trip along an express-track rail to win the Preakness.


Saturday’s rail starter Math Wizard (6-1, 14-1, 25-1) is winless since he was claimed for $25,000 last winter at Gulfstream Park. As a closer he might have benefited the most from Maximum Security setting a hot pace. But he has also shown an ability to close on both soft and honest fractions, finishing second in the Ohio Derby and third in the Indiana Derby.


Deep closer Shanghai Superfly (30-1, 33-1, 40-1) is 0-for-8, has been in nothing but maiden races, was claimed this summer for $45,000 and is in over his head this weekend.


Improbable and War Of Will are the only Grade 1 winners in the Penn Derby. They are each also three-time losers in Grade 1s. War Of Will needed everything to fall just right to win the Preakness against a field that was middling for a classic.


In spite of the endless search for value, Improbable looks too good to bet against him Saturday, especially since he will carry five fewer pounds than he did in the Shared Belief. My tickets will be keyed to him with Spun To Run and Math Wizard included in exacta and trifecta tickets and Mr. Money rounding out the superfecta.


Racing notes and opinions


A clarification/correction is in order for last week’s column on the absence of racing futures in Nevada. Legal disseminators required to complete race-book wagers are not the track operators themselves. In fact, there are only two companies legally licensed to provide – or disseminate – racing results for use by sports books here. They are Roberts Communications, which also provides video feeds to ADWs nationwide, and the appropriately named Las Vegas Dissemination Company. In essence they are middlemen between racetracks around North America and race books around Nevada, and they are not giving away that service. With a dwindling number of bookmakers who know racing, this underscores the likelihood that casinos will continue to take a pass on the added expense of booking horse futures.


It is as if a dark cloud continues to hover over Santa Anita. Eleven days before the start of the fall meet, a 31st racehorse died as a result of a racetrack injury there in the past 8½ months. This time it was on the statistically safest training track, where 4-year-old Zeke suffered a pelvic fracture and was subsequently euthanized Monday. “We are carefully reviewing what factors could have contributed to Zeke’s injury,” Santa Anita’s top house veterinarian Dr. Dionne Benson said in a written statement. Trained by Dean Pederson, the gelding had raced most recently Aug. 29 at Del Mar. Although there have been no racing deaths in southern California since June, it was the fifth to happen in training this summer. Four horses died at Del Mar, including two that had a freak, head-on collision. Unfortunately, all this will be catnip for mainstream media frothing to play “gotcha” when racing resumes at Santa Anita next Friday.


No 3-year-old has won three Grade 1s this year. Guarana (9-5, 1-1, 5-4) could be the first if she wins Saturday at 5:14 p.m. EDT as the favorite in the $1 million Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes, an 8½-furlong race at Parx for 3-year-old fillies. In the field of 11, she is one of perhaps seven horses that could be among the early frontrunners. They are almost certain to be led by Serengeti Empress (7-2, 7-2, 7-2), the horse drawn into post position 1. Adding blinkers, Bellafina (6-1, 15-2, 8-1) tries to prove that she is not just a Santa Anita course horse. Last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Jaywalk (6-1, 15-2, 8-1) comes back from finishing second as the favorite in the Monmouth Oaks. Guarana will be on my tickets on top of Parx stakes winner Jeltrin (12-1, 12-1, 14-1), Serengeti Empress and streaking Grade 3 winner Horologist (15-1, 16-1, 20-1).


Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at It appears more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at Trainer Bret Calhoun discusses his four-time graded-stakes winner Mr. Money, a contender to win Saturday’s Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby. Longtime Philadelphia sports writer Dick Jerardi handicaps the fields for both the Penn Derby and the Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes. Twitter feedback reacts to last week’s big stories about Justify’s positive drug test and the end of racing futures in Nevada. The RFRP is also available via Apple, Google and Stitcher and at

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