WHEN PARX RACING officials decided to move the Pennsylvania Derby from Labor Day to later in September, even they might not have imagined all the benefits that would follow. Almost immediately, some of America's best 3-year-olds, including horses that had run in the Triple Crown races, began to descend on Street Road in Bensalem.
Travers winner Will Take Charge shipped straight from Saratoga to win the 2013 Pa. Derby on his way to the 3-year-old championship. Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome ran in the 2014 Pa. Derby, a race won by Bayern, who set a track record and followed up with a win in the Breeders' Cup Classic. This year, the Derby and Preakness winners, Nyquist and Exaggerator, ran in the Pa. Derby.
The race has become a final destination for top 3-year-olds before the Breeders' Cup. And it was announced Friday that, starting in 2017, the Pennsylvania Derby will become a Grade I stakes race, the top level of American racing.
The graded stakes committee met in Kentucky on Wednesday and looked at the histories of every stakes in America. There was only one race the committee thought should go from a Grade II to a Grade I - the Pennsylvania Derby - and the vote was unanimous.
"It's a tribute not to me, but everybody that's been there before me," said Sam Elliott, Parx's second-year director of racing. "I guess they got the ball in the red zone and we punched it in."
Two major races with great tradition as preps for the Kentucky Derby, the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and the Blue Grass at Keeneland, were downgraded from Grade I to Grade II.
A few years back, Parx put in some bonuses to attract horses that had won a Triple Crown race, the Haskell or the Travers. Those incentives worked, but they should no longer be necessary. The Grade I and placement on the calendar will be enough. The purse, already $1 million, could be bumped up to $1.25 million, just to give it some separation from similar races.
Grades for stakes are determined by the accomplishments of the horses that run in them before and after the race. The Pa. Derby might have gotten its upgrade under any circumstance, but the timing of the meeting could not have been better, only days after the 1-2 finishers in 2016 - Connect and Gun Runner - each won Grade I stakes over Thanksgiving weekend.
"Many of the board members had very complimentary things to say about the race," said Elliott, who was an observer at the graded stakes committee meeting but could not speak on behalf of his race. "It's gratifying, for me personally, but more for the organization."
The Pa. Derby is now the second Grade I at Parx. The Cotillion, for 3-year-old fillies, was upgraded several years ago. Management decided to place the two races on the same card, giving Parx a rare distinction for a track of its size of having two $1 million races on the same day. In 2017, they will have that and Grade I races run back to back.