To Honor and Serve's impressive win in the Pennsylvania Derby was either a coming out party for a horse that struggled to regain his juvenile form during 2011, a sad indictment on the quality of the Travers, or something in-between. On the surface, it was impressive win by a colt that many people had high hopes for at the beginning of the year. On the other hand, the relative poor performance of the three horses exiting the Travers Stakes, calls in to question the strength of that race. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Let's tackle each of these situations on their own.
THAS Regains His Juvenile Form
To Honor and Serve has struggled to return to the form that saw him win the Nashua and the Remsen in impressive fashion last fall, especially during his disappointing Triple Crown preps this past spring. His juvenile wins occurred when he was allowed to set and control the early pace right from the gate, but his win on Saturday at Parx followed a more patient stalking trip. The ability to sit off the early speed is a tactic that should help his colt moving forward, especially if he decides to try 10 furlongs in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Additionally, the rest of the field was easily defeated by To Honor and Serve, and while that may not have been the strongest field we'll see all year, it wasn't horrible at all.
What Happened To That Travers Form?
Not a great day for the Travers horses at Parx. Ruler On Ice, Rattlesnake Bridge and JW Blue finished 2nd, 3rd and 5th, but none of them seriously threatened the winner at any point during the running of the race. Ruler On Ice made a good late charge, but he was never going to catch To Honor and Serve. Rattlesnake Bridge ran mid-pack early on and flattened out pretty good in the stretch. And J W Blue never really got going at any point.
At first glance, the results of the Penn Derby suggest that this year's Travers field was fairly week. A closer look, however, puts forth the idea that those three colts were up against unfavorable track conditions.
The number one caveat from the Pennsylvania Derby was the nature of the main track at Parx on Saturday. To put it bluntly, it was very, very kind to horses racing on the front-end. Below is a summary of every race at Parx on Saturday, along with the winner's running style, the distance of the race, and the condition of the racing surface at the time.
Six horses won in gate-to-wire fashion one winner pressed the early speed very hard in the early stages, and five more sat just off the pace. Not a single winner had to make up meaningful ground in the final furlongs, and most were within a length of the leader after a half-mile.
The two stakes races on the card - the listed Gallant Bob Stakes (race 10) and the G2-Pennsylvania Derby (race 11) - saw record setting performances from the winners. Royal Cruiser won the Gallant Bob in a track record time of 1:07.51 at odds of 19/1. To Honor and Serve set a new Pennsylvania Derby stakes record time of 1:47.34, breaking the old mark of 1:47 and 3/5ths set by Western Playboy (1989), Rock and Roll (1998) and Timber Reserve (2007).
The two favorites in the Gallant Bob (Poseidon's Warrior and Indiano) sat 3rd and 4th in the early going and could never make up any ground on the runaway winner in deep stretch.
In the Pennsylvania Derby, Ruler On Ice and J W Blue all set well off the pace in the early going. After a half-mile, Ruler on Ice and J W Blue were over 10 lengths back of the leaders, while Rattlesnake Bridge was a little over two lengths back. The fact that Ruler On Ice was able to make any kind of late charge in the stretch is, I think, a very good sign for his connections. A quick look through the charts reveals that very few horses were able to makeup that kind of ground at Par on Saturday, with the notable exception of Voodoo Storm and Keep Me Informed in the 9th race.
A Little Bit of Both
As good as To Honor and Serve's win in the Pennsylvania Derby was, it probably looked a bit better than reality due to the conditions of the track. At the same time, I think this race was clearly THAS's best race this year. The Bernardini colt was able to run big off of a stalking trip and didn't need to control the pace, as he did in his best juvenile scores. In that same token, I think Ruler On Ice deserves some bonus points for his race. He was attempting to come from well back on a surface that was unkind to closers at a distance that is probably short of his best.
The biggest disappointment in the Pennsylvania Derby, for me, was Rattlesnake Bridge. He was much closer to the pace than Ruler On Ice, but couldn't hold off the Belmont winner in the stretch and was over three lengths back of 2nd at the wire. Given the circumstances, I think he should have done better.
Video Replay - Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby