Late-developing 3-year-old Connect scored a narrow upset win over Gun Runner in the $1.25 million Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) Sept. 24 at Parx Racing, leaving this year's sophomore male division as clear as the dirt under his feet.
After a poor performance in his first graded stakes try in the Travers Stakes (gr. I), Connect bounced back in the Pennsylvania Derby, holding off grade II winner Gun Runner in the stretch while earning a win over a pair of classic winners in Parx Racing's signature race.
The field of 12 3-year-olds included Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner Nyquist and Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner Exaggerator , who were meeting for the seventh time in their careers. In the previous six races that included Nyquist and Exaggerator, one of the two had always won. But on Saturday 6-5 favorite Nyquist challenged off the far turn before fading to sixth while Exaggerator never threatened and finished seventh. Paul Pompa Jr.'s Connect stole the headlines.
Following a Triple Crown season that featured three different winners, with Creator taking the Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (gr. I); the summer has seen the emergence of runaway Travers Stakes (gr. I) winner Arrogate and now Connect, a son of Curlin who won the Curlin Stakes July 29 at Saratoga Race Course before finishing well back in the Travers.
When Connect won the Curlin, it marked his third straight victory and he returned to that winning form for trainer Chad Brown on Saturday, completing the 1 1/8-mile test in 1:50 1/5 seconds under jockey Javier Castellano. Brown said he's always been high on Connect.
"He has only run one bad race (the Travers) and he came out of it with a lung infection," Brown said. "(Pompa) felt it was a legitimate excuse and he pushed to run in the Pennsylvania Derby. I'm glad he did."
Rounding out the top four spots Saturday were longshots Wild About Deb in third and My Man Sam fourth. Connect returned $23.20 to win, $9.80 to place, and $7.20 to show, while Gun Runner paid $5.40 and $4 to place and show. In earning her first grade I-placing, 61-1 shot Wild About Deb returned $21.20 to show.
While versatile Connect won the Curlin in gate-to-wire fashion, he had rallied from off the pace in his maiden win in May at Belmont Park and picked a good time to return to that style Saturday, in a race that saw a fast opening quarter as front-end Smarty Jones Stakes (gr. III) winner Awesome Slew outgunned Cupid to the first call in :23.01. Awesome Slew maintained his clear advantage through a half-mile in :47.35 and six furlongs in 1:11.81, while chased by three-time grade II winner Cupid, with Nyquist behind him.
Nyquist shifted into another gear off the far turn to attempt an outside rally under Mario Gutierrez, but Connect, who raced in fifth or sixth early, launched a rail rally to seize the lead in midstretch. Grade II winner Gun Runner proved the winner's top challenger and rallied while racing very wide in the lane. Connect prevailed by a half-length.
"This kind of horse, he's a big horse and I think he put it together today, and I'm very satisfied with the way he did it today," Castellano said.
Cherie DeVaux, assistant trainer to Chad Brown, said mutliple Eclipse Award winner Castellano delivered a nice ride.
"He broke really well and found himself in a really good position on the rail, saving all the ground," DeVaux said. "Javier was really patient with him, took his time with him and made his one run and the horse was really gutsy to hang in there."
Trainer Steve Asmussen was pleased with the way Winchell Thoroughbreds, Three Chimneys, and Besilu Stables' Gun Runner raced, but confessed he was thinking bigger for the son of Candy Ride , who finished third in the Kentucky Derby.
"He's such a nice horse. He ran a solid race and beat the horses that beat him in the (Kentucky Derby)," Asmussen said. "He was second, but I kind of planned on winning today."
Nyquist's owner Paul Reddam had no immediate explanation for the off-the-board finish by his Derby winner and wasn't sure a Breeders' Cup start would be realistic.
"The winner ran well and we didn't have any apparent excuse," Reddam said. "We'll have to check the horse over and make sure that he's (well) and we'll work from there. That was definitely the worst performance of his life, so that's not how you want to go into the Breeders' Cup. Maybe it'll somehow look different tomorrow, but I'm not sure how."