The Pennsylvania Derby, your traditional last major 3-year-old race of the season, returns after a COVID-related year absence. And the Penn Derby returns, asking the pressing question concerning a couple of decorated sophomore runners:

Hot Rod Charlie-Penn Derby
Hot Rod Charlie and trainer Doug O’Neill get a prime opportunity to win their first Grade 1 in Saturday’s Pennsylvania Derby at Parx. (Image: Sarah Andrew)

Will either Hot Rod Charlie or Midnight Bourbon finally get that elusive Grade 1 victory?

If either one of them breaks their Grade 1 schnide, Saturday at Parx is probably the time and the place they break it. There is no Essential Quality, no Mandaloun, no Medina Spirit to torment either of the two 3-year-olds, who are clearly the front-runners here in more ways than one.

This year’s $1 million Penn Derby features a field of eight – down from 10 with the scratches of Medina Spirit and Keepmeinmind. Medina Spirit, the initial 2/1 favorite, scratched after trainer Bob Baffert didn’t like his outside post 9. Trainer Robertino Diodoro scratched Keepmeinmind Friday after he suffered an abscess in his left front foot.

“It’s just bad timing,” Diodoro told Parx. “He trained like a monster (Thursday) and we needed the pony to get him of the track; he was feeling so good. This is definitely disappointing, but the main thing is the horse is going to be OK. Terrible timing.”

Parx gets its day in the sun Saturday

The remaining eight will travel 1 1/8 miles in the featured race on Parx’s marquee race day. The suburban Philadelphia track offers eight stakes – five graded – and $3.4 million in combined purses. The Penn Derby is one of two Grade 1s, with the Cotillion for 3-year-old fillies being the other.

Those eight follow the hoofprints of recent Penn Derby winners, such as McKinzie (2018), West Coast (2017), Frosted (2015), Bayern (2014) and Will Take Charge (2012). Bayern set the track record, beating Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome in a race that put the Penn Derby on the map for horsemen. For good measure, Bayern beat him again in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, giving Baffert the first of his three consecutive Classic titles. Both Will Take Charge and West Coast won Eclipse Awards as Champion 3-Year-Old Male.

That’s where Hot Rod Charlie and Midnight Bourbon come in. Hot Rod Charlie inherited 5/2 morning-line favorite status when Baffert pulled 2/1 Medina Spirit out. You’ll remember his last outing, that infamous Haskell Stakes victory that wasn’t, after Hot Rod Charlie was taken down for interfering with Midnight Bourbon in the stretch.

Hot Rod Charlie as consistent as they come

That erased what would have been his first victory since he took the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby in March. Hot Rod Charlie’s demotion to seventh marked the first time he missed the board in eight races, spanning 10 months. And yet, despite more than $1.5 million in earnings, a narrow miss in the Belmont Stakes, and a stellar record in graded stakes (1-2-2 in six starts), Hot Rod Charlie lacks a Grade 1.

“He has shown up in every big race we have had him in,” trainer Doug O’Neill said. “He has been very honest, and, gosh, I just feel so lucky and blessed to be connected with him. He is just a real cool, blue-collar solid horse.”

Expect that “blue-collar horse” to establish early speed with his Haskell nemesis: Midnight Bourbon (5/1). Both are front-runners who like being on – or near – the lead.

The clock strikes 12 on Midnight Bourbon in the stretch

Midnight Bourbon held the lead when Rombauer reeled him in at the sixteenth pole in the Preakness. He led the Travers through the first mile of the 1 ¼-mile test, before Essential Quality caught him with three-sixteenths to go and beat him by a neck. And he led the opening quarter-mile of the Louisiana Derby before Hot Rod Charlie passed him and O Besos nearly did at the wire.

Detect a trend here? Midnight Bourbon hasn’t won since the Grade 3 Lecomte in January. That was six races ago. There is no quibbling with Midnight Bourbon’s grinder mentality; he never takes a race off and you’ll see him on the lead here from the outset.

That said, putting aside his decent sixth in the Kentucky Derby and his DNF due to Hot Rod Charlie’s interference at Monmouth Park, Midnight Bourbon put himself in the box of good, but not great, colts.

This is his best chance to escape that box.

Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby/Parx

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Fulsome, 12/1 (Florent Geroux/Brad Cox)
  2. Keepmeinmind, SCR
  3. Speaker’s Corner, 12/1 (Jose Ortiz/Bill Mott)
  4. Weyburn, 12/1 (Paco Lopez/Jimmy Jerkens)
  5. I Am Redeemed, 20/1 (Abner Adorno/Penny Pearce)
  6. Bourbonic, 12/1 (Kendrick Carmouche/Todd Pletcher)
  7. Hot Rod Charlie, 5/2 (Flavien Prat/Doug O’Neill)
  8. Midnight Bourbon, 5/1 (Ricardo Santana Jr./Steve Asmussen)
  9. Medina Spirit, SCR
  10. Americanrevolution, 15/1 (Luis Saez/Todd Pletcher)

There are two others worth noting who could keep both Hot Rod Charlie and Midnight Bourbon Grade 1-less. The first is Speaker’s Corner (12/1), who defines “lightly raced.” The Street Sense colt is 2-0-1 in his three career races – the lightest-raced colt in the field. But after breaking his maiden in his second try at Belmont Park last October, Speaker’s Corner tore apart a Saratoga August allowance by 5 ¼ lengths.

That Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott turns him loose in a solid Grade 1 coming out of that speaks loudly about Speaker’s Corner. That Speaker’s Corner gets a fast pace to run into speaks loudly about his chances here – even vaulting into this deep pool.

Don’t be surprised by a Penn Derby upset

The second to watch is another Grade 1 rookie: Fulsome (12/1). The Into Mischief colt comes in 5-for-7 and 3-for-his-last-4 (3-0-1). Two of those wins came in Grade 3s: the Matt Winn at Churchill Downs in May and the Street Sense here at Parx last month. Fulsome was the 3/5 favorite in that latter race, the prep for the Penn Derby.

What makes Fulsome a quiet threat here is his closing style. In a race where Hot Rod Charlie, Midnight Bourbon, Americianrevolution and Weyburn figure to fly out of the gate, he can smash and grab at least a piece here – if not more — should things break right.

The pick: Speaker’s Corner. This pace sets up perfectly for a colt who waltzed to a 107 Equibase Speed Figure in his last start. He was highly regarded from the outset and his late-finishing kick and pure speed find the right scenario to flourish. Plus, you get all that at a price you won’t get with the two favorites. That said, do not leave Hot Rod Charlie off your tickets. He has more tactical speed that Midnight Bourbon – a lesson we’ve seen time and time again this year.