The lucrative purse for the 1 1/8-mile Pa. Derby Derby helped draw a nice group of nine 3-year-olds. To Honor and Serve, one of the leading Triple Crown hopefuls entering the season, finally looks like he is rounding back into his expected form and enters the race off a dominating optional claiming win at Saratoga. The son of Bernardini was made the 3-1 second choice.
Travers (gr. I) second- and third-place finishers Rattlesnake Bridge and J W Blue are also in the field, as is West Virginia Derby (gr. II) runner-up Rush Now, though trainer Tony Dutrow is unsure that he will go. Preakness (gr. II) runners Isn't He Perfect and Norman Asbjornson also help contribute to the competitive lineup, which is the feature on Parx Racing’s 12-race card that also includes the $250,000 Gallant Bob Stakes for 3-year-old sprinters.
Champion Uncle Mo was under consideration for the Pa. Derby but opted to go in the Oct. 1 Kelso Handicap (gr. II) at Belmont instead.
Live Oak Plantation’s To Honor and Serve missed four months after finishing a disappointing third in the Florida Derby (gr. I) and subsequently sustaining a strained suspensory ligament back in April. He made his comeback in the Aug. 1 Amsterdam (gr. II) at 6 1/2 furlongs, finishing sixth, but in his most recent start romped by 8 1/4 lengths Aug. 26 at Saratoga in his first two-turn try since the injury.
The bay colt has worked twice since his optional claimer, including a bullet five-furlong breeze in 1:02 4/5 Sept. 17 at Saratoga. Trainer Bill Mott, who won this race in 1998 with Rock and Roll, has assigned Jose Lezcano to ride To Honor and Serve for the first time. John Velazquez rode him in his last race but opted to take the mount on Rattlesnake Bridge this time.
To Honor and Serve will carry top weight of 124 pounds, giving five-10 pounds to the rest of the field.
George and Lori Hall’s Ruler On Ice will also get a rider change from Jose Valdivia Jr. to Garrett Gomez. It will be his third race since winning the Belmont at odds of 24-1 and his first race in eight starts this year without Valdivia aboard.
The son of Roman Ruler finished a good third in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I) July 31 and fourth in the Travers in his last start. He has worked twice since then at Monmouth Park for trainer Kelly Breen, who shipped his colt in to Parx to score an allowance race back in February.
Ruler On Ice, an earner of $916,500 from nine starts, will break from the rail.
Mill House’s Rattlesnake Bridge was beaten only 1 1/4 lengths by Stay Thirsty in the Travers in his second try in graded company. The Kiaran McLaughlin trained son of Tapit won the Long Branch Stakes at Monmouth in his previous start and will likely be coming from off the pace under Velazquez in his attempt to run down the frontrunners, which should at least include To Honor and Serve.
Rattlesnake Bridge, who will make the seventh start of the year after being unraced as a juvenile, was made the 4-1 third choice. He will break from post 9.
The Elkstone Group’s J W Blue was beaten 2 3/4 lengths in the Travers as a 32-1 outsider and will look to make another improvement for trainer Dutrow. The Sky Mesa colt has produced a 1-2-2 record from seven starts this season. Cornelio Velasquez will keep the mount.
“I wasn’t predicting where he would finish in the Travers but I felt like he would run a good race,” said Dutrow. “In my opinion, he still hasn’t run to his ability yet—in any race. I see him improving and maturing, and I’m feeling good about him.
“He’s an easy one to figure out. He will break poorly like he has in every one of his races and take himself out of the race. That’s just what he does. Hopefully he’ll make a nice run and we’ll see where he finishes.”
Even though Rush Now’s second-place finish to Prayer for Relief in the Aug. 6 West Virginia Derby looks even better since the latter colt came back to score the Super Derby (gr. II) earlier this month, Dutrow isn’t sure he will run him in the Pa. Derby. Rush Now had the lead most of the way in the West Virginia Derby before being run down by Prayer for Relief in the final yards and losing by a half-length.
“It was nice to see him run well in the West Virginia Derby, but I came away thinking, ‘How did he lose?' Dutrow said. "He had a dream trip around there and given the circumstances of the race if he was any good he would have won.
“I’m thinking that To Honor and Serve is at least as fast as Rush Now, so I’m not feeling great about this race setup. I don’t have to make a decision now, so I’ll wait (until Saturday). I may wait for the Indiana Derby instead.”
JW Blue and Rush Now are based at Delaware Park and would ship to Parx the morning of the race. They are both cross-entered in the $250,000 Kent Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Delaware Park.
Based in Maryland, Norman Asbjornson has two decisive allowance wins at Parx this year, one in January and the other in his last start Sept. 3 at one mile when rolling by 4 3/4 lengths. The son of Real Quiet was making his first start since finishing 11th in the Preakness.
Isn’t he Perfect, who was ninth in the Preakness and 12th in the Belmont, has won just one of 10 starts this season.
Arthur's Tale will make his first start since missing by a neck to Toby's Corner in the April 9 Wood Memorial (gr. I) at Aqueduct. The Bernardini colt was knocked off the Triple Crown trail after a cannon bone injury to his left front leg. He has been working for trainer Tom Albertrani at Saratoga and Belmont for his comeback.
Completing the field is Pender Harbour, the Woodbine shipper who won the Prince of Wales and Breeders’ Stakes, the final two jewels of the Canadian Triple Crown. Regular rider Luis Contreras will be aboard the gelding for trainer Mike Depaulo.
The Gallant Bob field is led by morning-line favorite Indiano, a winner of three straight Calder stakes including the Carry Back (gr. II).
$1 million Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II, Race 11, 5:45 p.m.), 3YO, 1 1/8 Miles (Dirt) PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, Odds 1. Ruler On Ice (KY), G K Gomez, 124, K J Breen, 5/2
2. Arthur's Tale (KY), A Garcia, 114, T Albertrani, 12/1
3. Pender Harbour (ON), L Contreras, 119, M P De Paulo, 12/1
4. Norman Asbjornson (PA), J Pimentel, 114, C W Grove, 12/1
5. Rush Now (KY), 114, No Rider, A W Dutrow, 9/2
6. Isn't He Perfect (KY), 114, No Rider, D Shivmangal, 20/1
7. To Honor and Serve (KY), J Lezcano, 114, W I Mott, 3/1
8. J W Blue (KY), C H Velasquez, 114, A W Dutrow, 8/1
9. Rattlesnake Bridge (KY), J R Velazquez, 119, K P McLaughlin, 4/1