When NBC analyst Randy Moss was asked recently how he would vote if ballots had to be submitted for the Eclipse Award for champion 3-year-old male, he replied that he would write in “abstain.” His whimsical desire to opt out is completely understandable given the uncertainty surrounding the division.
There is hope, however, that the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby, being contested at 1 1/8 miles on Saturday at Parx Racing in Bensalem, Pa., will shed needed light on the complex subject.
The last major race for 3-year-olds has grown in stature throughout the years and was awarded Grade 1 status for the first time this season.
“This year it might be more important than ever because the 3-year-old championship picture is in complete disarray,” Moss said.
West Coast, seeking an encore to his pacesetting 3 ¼-length victory in the Aug. 26 Travers Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, may move to the head of the class if he can deliver in the Pennsylvania Derby for owners Mary and Gary West. He would join Always Dreaming as the only dirt horses in the division to capture two Grade 1s.
“Since the Triple Crown, Always Dreaming has run terribly and may never run again,” Moss said. “So I would think West Coast would be in the driver’s seat if he were to win the Pennsylvania Derby, which would be his fifth win in a row. He is one of the few 3-year-olds out there that has performed consistently well.”
It should be noted, though, that West Coast was never tried against Grade 1 company before the Travers. The Pennsylvania Derby probably will provide a sterner test than he received in the Aug. 26 Travers, when jockey Mike Smith caught everyone by surprise by gunning to the lead, something his mount had not done before.
Moss noted how much West Coast had everything fall his way in the “Mid-Summer Derby.”
“He had the perfect set-up thanks to Mike Smith,” he said. “He set a pace that was very comfortable, without pressure, racing on the rail all the way, which may have been an advantage that day at Saratoga. It was the recipe for victory thanks to Mike Smith’s aggressive riding.”
Moss believes Irap may complicate the picture even more by winning the Pennsylvania Derby. Irap broke from post-position 10 in the Travers and did well to finish third.
“Irap was going wide on both turns and still was fighting at the top of the lane and pulled almost even with West Coast at the quarter pole,” Moss noted.
The Pennsylvania Derby would allow Irap to finally break into the ranks of Grade 1 winners. He gained a measure of infamy when he became the first maiden to take the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. He posted Grade 3 successes in the Ohio and Indiana Derbys. If Irap should emerge, it would say everything about this whacky season since he struggled home 18th in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.
Always Dreaming possesses undeniable cache as the Kentucky Derby winner, but he lost a great deal of luster since then in finishing eighth in the Preakness, third in the Jim Dandy and ninth in the Travers. Cloud Computing, who failed to back up his Preakness win, and Tapwrit, who also came up short after outlasting his competition in the Belmont, leave even their most ardent backers somewhat empty.
And so the search for the 3-year-old male champion goes on, first in Pennsylvania and then at the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 3 and 4 at Del Mar. In an odd sort of way, it makes for great fun.