By Keith Jones
The day was billed as the greatest day in the history of the race track. Most often, with that kind of backdrop, delivering can be a tall order. Running three major stakes, the Gallant Bob, the G2 $1 million Pennsylvania Derby and the G1 $1 million Cotillion Stakes, Parx Racing indeed delivered. The Gallant Bob saw a horse out of contention for the first half of the race sweep by the field to win, the PA Derby was won by the longest shot on the board, and the Cotillion Stakes saw a battle between two great fillies decided in the final strides.
In what was the race of the year at Parx, and maybe anywhere, the Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes went in dramatic fashion to My Miss Aurelia. Last year’s two year-old filly champion came into the race unbeaten, had only one start back this year and faced the daunting task of putting her streak on the line against the hottest filly in the land, Godolphin Racing’s, Questing, who was coming off back to back Grade 1 wins at Saratoga by a total of 13 ½ lengths. As the gate opened, it was immediately apparent that Corey Nakatani, aboard My Miss Aurelia, wanted nothing to do with an early battle with the speedster Questing, so he took back right from the break and sat a stalking trip to the far turn. “We decided we’d let Questing do her thing early,” said Nakatani, “and save our best for later.” And save their best for later he did. Jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. nursed along Questing through a pedestrian opening quarter of 25.19 and continued to coast along after a half in 50.04. My Miss Aurelia was never far behind sitting just off her outside flank. Moving for the top of the stretch, Nakatani knew it was time to engage his horse. “With such a slow pace, I had to move a little sooner than I would have wanted,” remarked Nakatani. As the two fillies turned for home, there was nothing to separate them as they brushed shoulder to shoulder and battled head to head passing the eighth pole. From there it was a battle of wills. Questing doggedly digging in on the inside with My Miss Aurelia fighting for all she was worth on the outside. Just before the wire, My Miss Aurelia pushed her nose in front and won a Cotillion Stakes that will be talked about for years to come. Nakatani summed it up with one final remark, “It was a horse race.” Trained by Steve Asmussen, the winner went off as second choice at 8-5 and paid $5.60 to win. She finished the one mile and one-sixteenth in 1:44.54.
As fans tried to catch their breath after the thrilling Cotillion, the three year-old colts took the stage next in the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby. Billed as a rematch to settle the Travers dead heat between Alpha and Golden Ticket, there would be others looking to spoil that party. And spoil that party they did. Handsome Mike, the longest price on the board in the seven horse field at 19-1, traded the lead with Alpha throughout the mile and an eighth, and finally with a furlong to go, slowly began to edged away from the field and went on to a most improbable two length victory. Coming into the race with nothing more than a maiden win on his resume, the Scat Daddy colt took advantage of a slow pace, a troubled trip from the favored Alpha, and ran the race of his life to shock the massive crowd. Handsome Mike broke well in the field of seven and was able to quickly establish forward position into the first turn. In fact, he had a short lead as they banked into that first turn. Meanwhile, Alpha, who got bumped around in the opening strides, then appeared rank and quickly came up to the inside of Handsome Mike and actually took a short lead as they rounded the opening turn. “Mike” countered and came right back and was again in front as they moved to the backstretch. As with the Cotillion, the pace again was extremely slow, the quarter in 25.08 and the half in 49.37. Down the backstretch, winning jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. kept his colt a bit off the rail, the rail appearing to be the slow part of the track as the day unfolded, and left the inside to Alpha. Alpha again moved to Handsome Mike entering the far turn and put a neck in front with just less than three furlongs to run. Handsome Mike fought right back and as they turned for home, he again was in front with the entire field now fanned out behind him desperately trying to close the gap. But it was not to be. Handsome Mike edged away through the last furlong and hit the wire two lengths in front for just the second win of his career in what proved to be a monumental upset. Racing in the famous white and purple of Paul Reddam, owner of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another, Handsome Mike paid $40.40 to win and stopped the timer in 1:51.63.
The big stake on the undercard was the $300,000 Gallant Bob Stakes, a six furlong test for three year-olds. Run just before the two $1 million dollar races, the Gallant Bob had the crowd buzzing. Coming from far behind on the backstretch, GSP Racing Stable’s Well Spelled unleashed a furious rally in the middle of the race track, ran past all seven rivals, and got up to win by a half-length. With Il Villano and Private Zone setting a break neck pace, 21.41 and 43.95, Pablo Fragoso was quite content to let his Spellbinder colt lag well behind the field. At the half mile pole, he was a good six lengths behind the trailing runners and looked to be an afterthought. Making his move rounding the far turn, Well Spelled started to roll and as the leaders hit the head of the stretch, he actually had drawn within striking range. Able to sustain that big rally all the way to the finish, he surged past the favored Trinniberg with about 50 yards to go and won his second stake in his last three starts. Overlooked at the mutuel windows, off at 14-1, Well Spelled paid $31.40 to win and finished out in 1:09.88.