Seven out-of-town runners – four from California and three from Kentucky – pulled into the Parx Racing stable area late Wednesday morning in advance of engagements on Saturday's monster card led by the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby and Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes.
The group included the two favorites for the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby, Improbable and Mr. Money, who arrived by van from Allentown, Pa., after flying from Louisville. The flight from Louisville was the second half of Improbable's journey, after the son of City Zip departed from trainer Bob Baffert's barn at Santa Anita Park in the early-morning hours Wednesday.
It was an early wake-up call for Improbable, the 8-5 morning line favorite. He and Jimmy Barnes, the assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, left their barn at Santa Anita at 1:30 a.m. PDT for the long trip to the Keystone State.
“It was a good ship,” Barnes said as he walked Improbable under the shedrow at the colt's home for the next few days. “It wasn't hot, and it was nice and cool all day. That is always helpful.”
Improbable is coming off a 2 3/4-length win in the Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar Aug. 25, his first race since a sixth in the Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore May 18.
The colt, the post-time favorite when fifth in the Kentucky Derby and in the Preakness, has won four of eight starts for WinStar Farm, China Horse Club and Starlight Racing.
He became the morning-line favorite for the Pennsylvania Derby after Maximum Security scratched from the race Tuesday.
“That is something we are used to,” Barnes said. “Wherever we go, we have a target on our back. We are used to walking out there and having the light blinking. You are not going to get into my head or his head by the light blinking, that's for sure. We just live with the pressure.”
Barnes said that Improbable will get his first look at Parx Thursday morning when he gallops a “little less than a mile.” He said he plans on bringing Improbable out at 9 a.m., the time reserved for horses running in the Saturday stakes races.
“If we went out any earlier, it would not be until daylight,” Barnes said. “I am not going to take him out in the dark.”
Allied Racing Stable's Mr. Money trained early Wednesday morning at Churchill before making the trip to Pennsylvania for his Grade 1 debut (See video, courtesy of the Kentucky HBPA). Trainer Bret Calhoun and his wife Sara flew on a separate flight to Philadelphia and made it to the barn area a few minutes before the 2-1 second choice showed up at the stable gate in a van with four others.
“Everything looks good,” Calhoun said after Mr. Money settled into his stall. “He's a smart horse, nothing really bothers him too much. I wouldn't expect anything different from him. He handles everything pretty well.”
Mr. Money, the winner of four straight including the Grade 3 West Virginia Derby last time out, trained under the lights at Churchill and will go right about at sunrise Thursday morning.
“We just galloped him a mile and a half about 5:45 this morning; that's the time he goes every day,” Calhoun said. “He had his normal breakfast, everything was normal, he got on the plane and here we are. It will be somewhat normal for him today, too. He might eat a little bit later today but he had a pretty normal schedule except for the plane trip in between.
“He'll gallop a mile and a half in the morning. We've got a plan. The track opens at 6:30 and we're just going to let the first wave go and he'll go at 6:40.”
A horse trailer pulled by Larry Jones' pickup and carrying Cotillion contender Street Band beat the commercial vans that picked up the air travelers.
Jones led the daughter of Istan off the van, gave her a half turn of the barn and let her adjust to her new stall situated in a row of four that other Cotillion runners will call home for a few days. Street Band, winner of the Grade 3 Indiana Oaks and third in the Grade 1 Alabama at Saratoga last time out, took a quick roll in the straw a few minutes after Jones' assistant Corey York unsnapped the shank and closed her screen.
“Smooth trip,” Jones said. “We checked out of the stable gate at Churchill at 3:52 in the morning and pulled into the gate here at 3:51, so right at 12 hours. And we beat everybody else.
“It was a beautiful day across the country. It was 73 degrees at Churchill when we started loading up about 3:30. But as we came up and got into Ohio it dropped down to 62. Then 74 is the highest I saw on the temperature gauge all day. A perfect day to travel. She didn't crack a sweat the whole way.”
Street Band was eventually joined in her corner of the barn by Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress and multiple Grade 1 winner Bellafina, who also shipped in from California. Those three are among the 11 entered in Saturday's $1 million Cotillion, a “Win and You're In” race for the Breeders' Cup Distaff.
Two other Californians also arrived – Landeskog and King Jack – for the Grade 2 Gallant Bob, one of five stakes on the undercard.
Several other contenders for the Pennsylvania Derby and Cotillion, which will be televised on NBC from 5-6 p.m. EDT Saturday, are expected in the coming days. Pennsylvania Derby Day starts with the first race at 12:25 p.m. Saturday with the Cotillion as Race 10 at 5:14. The Pennsylvania Derby goes as Race 11 with post time set for 5:48.
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