May 27, 2024

Hot Rod Charlie, Midnight Bourbon renew rivalry in Pennsylvania Derby, Medina Spirit withdrawn

Medina Spirit (right), Mandaloun (center), and Hot Rod Charlie (left) at the finish of the 2021 Kentucky Derby (Churchill Downs/Coady Photography)

Updates: Keepmeinmind was due to scratch Friday after developing a foot abscess. He’s the second withdrawal from the Pennsylvania Derby, after Bob Baffert announced Tuesday that Medina Spirit would not ship to run.

Saturday’s $1 million Pennsylvania Derby (G1) serves up a rematch between Hot Rod Charlie and Midnight Bourbon, and the speedy duo drew next to each other in the Parx feature.

Pennsylvania Derby (G1) – Race 12 (5:49 p.m. ET)

Medina Spirit, the first past the post in the Kentucky Derby (G1), originally drew post 9 in the 10-horse Penn Derby, but trainer Bob Baffert would later withdraw Medina Spirit from the race. Hot Rod Charlie, a close third to Medina Spirit in both the Robert B. Lewis (G3) and Kentucky Derby, is in post 7 Saturday. In post 8 is Midnight Bourbon, who has yet to finish in front of Hot Rod Charlie but has traded decisions with Medina Spirit.

Both Hot Rod Charlie and Midnight Bourbon have progressed since crossing swords with Medina Spirit on the Triple Crown trail. Hot Rod Charlie, a heroic runner-up to champion Essential Quality in the Belmont S. (G1), appeared to score a Grade 1 breakthrough in the July 17 Haskell S. (G1). But the Doug O’Neill sophomore was disqualified for badly hampering Midnight Bourbon, who clipped heels and nearly went down in a scary incident.

The Steve Asmussen-trained Midnight Bourbon bounced back from near-disaster at Monmouth to put up a terrific front-running display in the Aug. 28 Travers (G1), only succumbing grudgingly to Essential Quality by a neck. As a son of late-maturing Tiznow, Midnight Bourbon was likely not the finished article when runner-up to Hot Rod Charlie in the Louisiana Derby (G2) back in March. Nor did he have a fair shot against Medina Spirit in the Kentucky Derby, where he was a slow-starting sixth. Midnight Bourbon turned the tables on Medina Spirit next time in the Preakness (G1), where they placed second and third, respectively.

As his rivals went on to compete in the summer highlights, Medina Spirit went to the sidelines after Pimlico. The bombshell news of his testing positive for betamethasone following the Kentucky Derby has put him in danger of being stripped of his win, and trainer Bob Baffert was suspended for two years by Churchill Downs Inc.

A freshened Medina Spirit resurfaced with a wire-to-wire victory in the Aug. 29 Shared Belief S. at Del Mar. But the Penn Derby will now be void of his talents.

Hot Rod Charlie and Midnight Bourbon keep their regular pilots, Flavien Prat and Ricardo Santana respectively, for the fascinating pace scenario.

“That would be a great Flavien Prat question,” O’Neill said when track publicity asked about the big three drawn alongside each other. “No matter where we are, everyone just wants to get in those doors and get a good, clean break. And then just play the pace. I am sure Flavien will be sending and we will just kind of play it by ear.”

Baffert also commented that the break is vital:

“I would have preferred to be in the middle but I can’t worry about that. We didn’t want the one (post). Johnny (Velazquez) will figure out something. Once they draw the race, that’s it. They have all the heavyweights right next to each other. The break is always important. Once they draw, we don’t worry about it. The break is important no matter what post they have.”

The prospect of a hot tempo appeals to fellow Triple Crown veteran Keepmeinmind (note update above that he will be scratched). Seventh in the Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Preakness, the Robertino Diodoro trainee was beaten only a half-length when third in the Ohio Derby (G3) and runner-up to Essential Quality in the Jim Dandy (G2). He could get no closer than fourth in the Travers, but the race shape and cutback to 1 1/8 miles could help, and he keeps Joel Rosario in the saddle.

Godolphin’s highly regarded Speaker’s Corner, who missed the Triple Crown trail due to injury, makes his stakes and two-turn debut for Bill Mott. The winner of a salty Belmont Park maiden last fall, the Street Sense colt picked up where he left off with a romp going seven furlongs in a Saratoga allowance. Jose Ortiz has the riding assignment as Speaker’s Corner stretches out.

“I like him at the distance,” Mott said of Speaker’s Corner. “I understand we haven’t run at the two turns. I have been looking forward to doing that. It’s all trial and error. I suspect he will be OK doing it. Meanwhile, he has to do it. I think it’s going to be a proving ground with the ones who are in there. We are going to have to be on our game to compete with them. Meanwhile, we have always felt that we belong with this group. With this trip, you need to have some stamina. I am hoping he is able to show that.”

Trainer Brad Cox’s bench is so deep that he relies on his third-best sophomore colt, Fulsome, with champion Essential Quality pointing for the Breeders’ Cup and Mandaloun on holiday. Like Mandaloun a Juddmonte homebred by Into Mischief, Fulsome comes off a last-to-first victory in the local prep, the Aug. 24 Smarty Jones (G3). He’s now won four of his past five, including the Oaklawn S. and Matt Winn (G3).

Gotham (G3) winner Weyburn, who missed narrowly to Mandaloun two back in Monmouth’s Pegasus S., was most recently fourth to Essential Quality and Keepmeinmind in the Jim Dandy. Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher is double-handed with Wood Memorial (G2) shocker Bourbonic, exiting a third in the West Virginia Derby (G3), and the streaking Americanrevolution, who’s routed state-breds in the New York Derby and Albany S. Pennsylvania-bred I Am Redeemed also ventures into open company after taking the Aug. 23 Storm Cat S. over the track.