There are two ways to look at the bold pronouncement of First Dude being pegged as the 8-5 favorite in the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) on Sept. 25.
Some might say the colt is deserving of that status since he has hit the board in five consecutive grade I races. Or, others might feel the morning-line is a bit audacious since he has won just one time in 10 career starts.
Either way, because of his front-running style, First Dude should be a factor in the Pennsylvania Derby, which drew a small but formidable field of seven. The nine-furlong race is the season’s marquee event at Parx Racing, formerly known as Philadelphia Park. The race was moved from its previous Labor Day date this year so that it no longer has to compete with the Travers Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga.
Exhi, an improving 3-year-old colt trained by Todd Pletcher, was installed as the 5-2 second choice, while A Little Warm, winner of the Jim Dandy (gr. II), was made the 3-1 third choice. A Little Warm's trainer, Tony Dutrow, said Sept. 21 that his charge may or may not run in the race.
"We have put ourselves in the position to talk and think about (running). It was not in the original plan, but when the opportunity came up we decided to consider it," Dutrow said. "We've had conversations about the Indiana Derby (gr. II, Oct. 2 at Hoosier Park) and Kelso (gr. II, Oct. 3) at Belmont also. We'll decide as the week goes on."
If A Little Warm does go, the third through sixth-place finishers of the Travers all return for the Pa. Derby. The wild card in the race is Morning Line, who scored by 11 lengths last out in a first-level allowance race at Saratoga and will be making his stakes debut for trainer Nick Zito.
Not in the field is highly-touted Trickmeister, the undefeated Rick Dutrow Jr. trainee who was purchased privately by IEAH Stables after he won the Barbaro Stakes in July. Originally targeting the race, Trickmeister will instead undergo a bone scan, according to Daily Racing Form, after the connections were unhappy with how he came out of his latest work.
Donald Dizney’s homebred First Dude was third in the Travers, the third straight time he has finished in that position. The son of Stephen Got Even was also third in both the Aug. 1 Haskell Invitational (gr. I) and the June 5 Belmont Stakes (gr.I), which followed a runner-up effort in the Preakness (gr. I) and a third-place finish in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I).
Trainer Dale Romans has assigned Robby Albarado to ride First Dude, replacing Ramon Dominguez. Albarado has ridden the bay colt once, last fall in his second career race. Breaking from post 6, First Dude will carry only 114 pounds, 12 less than he toted in the Travers and eight pounds less than Exhi, A Little Warm, and Afleet Again, who was fourth in the Travers.
Despite winning just once, First Dude has earned $662,160.
Wertheimer and Frere’s homebred Exhi had a four-race win streak snapped in the Aug. 7 West Virginia Derby (gr. II) last out when finishing second by a length in a good effort. The Maria’s Mon colt won stakes in each of his previous four starts--all of them on synthetic surfaces--including the grade II Lexington Stakes at Keeneland in April. Trainer Todd Pletcher was not surprised Exhi ran well in only his third try on dirt.
“He has always trained exceptionally well on the dirt, and as he’s gotten stronger and matured he’s done even better on dirt,” Pletcher said. “He won the Rushaway (March 27 at Turfway Park) on synthetics in the spring and we just kind of stuck with (synthetics) after that because of the timing of races. But I was not at all surprised that he ran well in West Virginia.
“The horse is training extremely well and comes into the race in good order. It looks like a very competitive race but at the same time we feel like Exhi fits in well with them. I would imagine he will fall into a nice, stalking position.”
Exhi will also get a new rider, Javier Castellano, who replaces Albarado. The bay colt has had four works at Saratoga since the West Virginia Derby. He will break from the rail.
Edward Evans’ homebred A Little Warm solidified his status as a top 3-year-old when winning the July 31 Jim Dandy by 1 3/4 lengths for his first graded stakes win. He stalked the pace in the Travers before tiring to finish fifth. The Stormin Fever colt is 4-4-0 from 10 starts with earnings of $638,880.
A Little Warm broke his maiden at Philly Park last November in his fourth start, romping by more than 10 lengths going six furlongs. Like Exhi, he enjoys running near the pace and could get a stalking trip behind First Dude and Morning Line. Though John Velazquez was named to ride both A Little Warm and Morning Line, Dutrow said Garrett Gomez would be aboard A Little Warm if he goes.
Thoroughbred Legends Racing Stable’s Morning Line first turned heads when breaking his maiden by eight lengths at Monmouth Park June 27 in his third start. The Tiznow colt finished runner-up in an allowance race on July 31 at Saratoga before annihilating rivals in another allowance start on Aug. 21, this one at nine furlongs. Both of the wins came in front-running fashion.
Morning Line sparkled in his Pa. Derby tune-up on Sept. 18 at Saratoga, going four furlongs in :46 flat on the training track. Velazquez, aboard for the colt's last three starts, will retain the mount.
Afleet Again will be trying for his first win since taking the one-mile Withers (gr. III) at Aqueduct in April. Since then, he was third in the Spend a Buck Stakes, second in the Pegasus (gr. III), fifth in the Haskell, and fourth in the Travers. Locally trained by Robert Reid Jr., he won an allowance race on the slop at Philly Park in January.
$1,000,000 Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II, Race 11, 6:08 p.m.), 3YO, 1 1/8 Miles (Dirt) PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer 1. Exhi (KY), J Castellano, 122, T A Pletcher, 5/2
2. Severe Weather (FL), R Madrigal Jr., 114, F W Stites, 20/1
3. Afleet Again (KY), C H Velasquez, 122, R E Reid Jr., 12/1
4. A Little Warm (VA),G Gomez, 122, A W Dutrow, 3/1
5. Morning Line (KY), J R Velazquez, 114, N P Zito, 9/2
6. First Dude (FL), R Albarado, 114, D L Romans, 8/5
7. Friend Or Foe (NY), A O Solis, 114, J C Kimmel, 12/1