Litfin: Handicapping Stakes at Parx, Belmont

Two championships may be decided Sept. 23 at Parx Racing, of all places.

Once upon a time important racing took place in late September, but nowadays an ever-growing number of big-time horses appear once or twice in the summer, like shooting stars, followed by the announcement that "(fill in name) will train up to the Breeders' Cup."

On the bright side, I am no longer responsible for a weekly "Breeders' Cup doings" report, which is good, because actual doings on the racetrack have become a rarity.

Strangely enough, two championships may be decided Sept. 23—at Parx Racing, of all places—when Abel Tasman shoots for her fourth consecutive grade 1 win in the 51st running of the Cotillion Stakes (G1), and West Coast goes for his fifth straight win and second straight top-level score in the 41st edition of the Pennsylvania Derby, which will be run as a grade 1 for the first time.

Bob Baffert trains both of those 3-year-olds. What's more, he will actually be in attendance for those $1 million races in place of long-time assistant and chief travel envoy Jimmy Barnes, who is convalescing from a fractured pelvis sustained during a training mishap Sept. 17.

The $300,000 Gallant Bob Stakes (G3) for 3-year-old sprinters precedes the Cotillion and Pennsylvania Derby. It is the first leg of a Pick 3 as well as a Pick 4, but I cannot recommend either wager due to their takeout rates of 26%. Parx extracts an even more usurious 30%  from trifecta and superfecta wagers, so stick to the straight pools (17%), or exactas and doubles (20%).

Over at what has become the Belmont Park "Fall Meet of Irrelevance," two graded stakes at a mile worth a combined $500,000 attracted a total of 11 horses—the $200,000 Noble Damsel Stakes (G3T) has five fillies and mares, and the $300,000 Kelso Handicap (G2) got a field of six.

In the Kelso, Sharp Azteca can cement his status as the one to beat in the Las Vegas Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1). On-track patrons will have the opportunity to express their feelings for his trainer, social media singing sensation Jorge Navarro, who has recently been ruled off from several other racing jurisdictions.

Here we go then:

Gallant Bob (Parx, race 9, 4:14 ET): As the only graded stakes winner in the field, Coal Front (1A) is the 2-1 morning-line favorite, which seems logical enough based on his frontrunning victory in the Amsterdam Stakes (G2) over Excitations (7), who has been idle since then and is the 5-2 second choice.

I'm not sold on either one. Coal Front didn't beat much in the Amsterdam. Excitations (who we liked for a piece, to recall) had been beaten 28 lengths in two prior graded stakes, and the four others in the race were forgettable, including third finisher Singing Bullet, who was subsequently fourth in an optional claimer with second-level allowance conditions.

Coal Front was on the lead through a half-mile in :45.90 in the Amsterdam. Four weeks later, he ran back in the H. Allen Jerkens Stakes (G1) and found himself four lengths off a half in :45.05 en route to an off-the-board finish.

That was the fastest pace that Coal Front has encountered. However, there is a horse in this field who has run five times, and has never seen a half-mile split slower than :44.64 seconds: American Pastime (5).

American Pastime will make his stakes debut, but other than Coal Front, his rivals are without a victory from 22 combined tries in graded company. This seems like an ideal spot for the California invader, who is undefeated in three starts at six furlongs, and, to underscore the point, is accustomed to faster fractions than his opponents, all of which—except for Ann Arbor Eddie (2)—are based in the East or the Midwest.

American Pastime was geared down late beating older optional claimers five weeks ago. Based on numerous successful sojourns by Southern California shippers this season, and the pace situation, he is a win play.

Cotillion (Parx, race 10, 4:55 ET): You always have to be careful with the jet-lag factor, and this will be the fourth road trip for Abel Tasman (9) this season, but it seems like a reach to go beyond her.

Since adding blinkers following a runner-up finish in the Santa Anita Oaks (G1), Abel Tasman has reeled off grade 1 wins in the Longines Kentucky Oaks, Acorn Stakes, and Coaching Club American Oaks. In the latter race, she unleashed a big middle move to take the lead, then was able to win a stretch-long battle with Elate, who returned to win the Alabama Stakes (G1) handily over five members of the Cotillion lineup.

All four grade 1 wins in the field belong to Abel Tasman, who has already beaten many of these fillies at least once, and seems likely to put a bow on a divisional title despite a tough outside draw.

It's pretty wide open underneath in terms of exacta possibilities, but because I am a glutton for punishment, I will continue my relationship with Lockdown (2). Although she flattened out badly after a middle move in the Alabama, that was her first start since a runner-up finish in the Mother Goose Stakes (G2) seven weeks earlier against a loose-on-the-lead Unchained Melody. She should also benefit from the cutback to 8 1/2 furlongs.

I'll also take a saver exacta using It Tiz Well (5), who set a strong pace in the Alabama and was still able to fend off Salty (10) for second.

Pennsylvania Derby (Parx, race 11, 5:45 ET): It's become increasingly apparent that West Coast (4) is the fastest and most consistent member of his generation, after four wins in succession at four different tracks on both coasts.

How do they beat this horse? He won as a stalker at Santa Anita Park, and as a closer at Belmont Park and Los Alamitos, before he surprised everyone in the Travers Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) by going to the lead and never looking back.

The winners of all three Triple Crown races were off the board behind West Coast in the Travers. A win Saturday would give him five wins in a row, two of them seven-figure grade 1 events, and a virtual stranglehold on the division crown.

And while Baffert wasn't thrilled with the draw for Abel Tasman, he had to like the fact that West Coast drew outside Timeline (1) and Outplay (2). Both of those colts will have to hustle out of there, and Mike Smith can simply play things off the break from post 4 with the versatile West Coast.

Coming off a four-wide trip to finish third in the Travers, Irap (5) also seems in line for a favorable setup. 

The wild card is Irish War Cry (8), the dual grade 2 winner who stalked three wide but came up empty in the Betfair.com Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1). His only other start at nine furlongs was a pace-pressing win in the Wood Memorial Presented by NYRA Bets (G2), and he can be in the picture with a reprise of that performance. At this point, though, it's anybody's guess what version of Irish War Cry will show up.

Noble Damsel (Belmont, race 3, 2:32 ET): It's just a small gathering of five, but Malibu Stacy (3) is the only entrant who would really surprise me by winning, as I've got grade 1 winner Celestine (1), Sassy Little Lila (2), Time and Motion (4), and Off Limits (5) in a virtual dead heat by the numbers.

The pace dynamics would seem to tilt things in favor of Time and Motion and Off Limits, who break from the outside and will have ringside seats to a likely pace fight between Celestine, who won last year's Longines Just a Game Stakes (G1T) in stakes-record time, and Sassy Little Lila, who was on the lead to deep stretch of this year's Just a Game.

So we'll rank them thusly:

A - 4, 5
B - 1, 2

Kelso Handicap (Belmont, race 9, 5:45 ET): Sharp Azteca is reportedly under around-the-clock surveillance since his arrival on the Belmont backstretch. This will be his first start since the Monmouth Cup Stakes (G3) July 30, when he drew off to win by more than seven lengths in 1:40.19, eclipsing Formal Gold's 20-year-old track record for 1 1/16 miles by a hundredth of a second.

Horses trained by Jorge Navarro sometimes do amazing things like that, and if that's the version of Sharp Azteca (5) we see in the Kelso, his five pursuers won't know which way he went.

The likeliest alternative is Divining Rod  (4), who won his seasonal debut nicely in the mud, and was then rushed back into the Forego Stakes (G1) to finish a flat fourth just two weeks later. This has the look of a classic bounce-rebound pattern.

I guess my biggest question would be for the connections of Ross (3), who is 20-1 on the morning line, and actually got up late to nip Sharp Azteca for second in the Godolphin Mile Sponsored By Meydan Sobha (G2). 

After the Godolphin Mile, Ross didn't run again until Aug. 4, when he won— for the third time—over the all-weather surface at Deauville. Ross then came across the pond to finish last of 10 in the Forego, and you would've thought that since he was hanging around, a good target might have been last Sunday's $200,000 Presque Isle Mile over the synthetic surface at Presque Isle Downs.

Nope. But hey, what do I know?

A - 5
B - 4