BENSALEM, Pa. -- Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin dazzled at Saratoga, winning five major stakes, including the Jim Dandy and Travers with Alpha and the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama with Questing. The racing gods turned against him at Parx yesterday, when Alpha and Questing went down at odds-on in million-dollar races.
Alpha finished sixth behind 19-1 shot Handsome Mike in the Grade II, 11/8-mile Pennsylvania Derby. The 3-5 favorite got squeezed leaving the gate, bid for the lead entering the stretch but soon weakened. Half an hour earlier, Questing, 2-5 in a field of four, lost by a head to undefeated My Miss Aurelia, last year's 2-year-old filly champion, in the Cotillion Stakes, the first Grade I ever run in Pennsylvania.
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"Very disappointing,'' McLaughlin said. "When Alpha got squeezed, that really hurt us. The whole race changed.''
Unlike McLaughlin, jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. saved his day with Handsome Mike ($40.40) after losing on Questing. After Alpha drew even with him entering the lane, the winner spurted clear to break a seven-race losing streak.
"When I asked,'' Ortiz said, "he just pulled me hard.''
Handsome Mike is 2-for-10 after beating Macho Macho by two lengths in a slow 1:51.63. Golden Ticket, who dead-heated with Alpha in the Travers, was third.
It was Ortiz's first ride on Handsome Mike, owned by J. Paul Reddam, who teamed with trainer Doug O'Neill to take the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with I'll Have Another. Assistant Leandro Mora deputized because O'Neill is suspended.
There was far more drama in the 11/16-mile Cotillion, in which My Miss Aurelia, ridden by Corey Nakatani, dueled down the stretch with Questing before edging away in the final 20 yards. Questing, who raced four-wide on the backstretch, veered into the middle of the track entering the lane. After that, Ortiz said there was "a little bumping, but not too much.'' Despite a sluggish time of 1:44.54, Questing couldn't hold on.
My Miss Aurelia paid $5.60 in her sixth win for Stonestreet Stables and George Bolton. "She has a high cruising speed,'' trainer Steve Asmussen said, "and both fillies fought to the wire. It was a great horse race.''
Questing carried 124 pounds to My Miss Aurelia's 117, which had to be a factor. "She's a champion and we were giving her seven pounds,'' McLaughlin said. "But we just got beat a head, so we'll regroup.''
Parx is the second incarnation of Philadelphia Park, called "The Factory'' for its drab appearance and endless menu of cheap races. Parx is a glitzy palace whose massive casino revenue has boosted purses exponentially. Except for the Breeders' Cup, it was the first time an American track ever hosted two $1-million stakes the same day. It was the first marquee event here since the retirement ceremony of Smarty Jones, Philadelphia's beloved working-class hero, in August 2004.
Don't expect McLaughlin back soon. "I thought the racetrack was very deep and dry, and the times all day showed it,'' he said. "I'm just glad we don't run very often at Parx.''