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Jon White: Pennsylvania Derby Selections + Flightline Update

by Jon White

September 22, 2022

The rematch is on!

The first time they met, Cyberknife and Taiba battled it out down to the wire in a photo finish between a pair of Kentucky-bred Gun Runner colts in the Grade I, $1 million Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park on July 23.

Cyberknife prevailed by a head at odds of 7-1. Taiba finished second at 2-1.

The final time of 1:46.24 was an indication of just how well both Cyberknife and Taiba ran in the Haskell. That clocking broke Monmouth’s track record for 1 1/8 miles.

Cyberknife and Taiba face each other again this Saturday (Sept. 24) in the Grade I, $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing.

The Pennsylvania Derby, which like the Haskell is a 1 1/8-mile affair, has attracted a strong field that includes two-time Grade I winner Cyberknife and Grade I winners Taiba, Zandon and White Abarrio.

Zandon certainly belongs on the list of contenders for the Pennsylvania Derby. In fact, when he finished a respectable third in the Grade I Kentucky Derby on May 7, he defeated five fellow Pennsylvania Derby entrants: Simplification (who finished fourth in the Run for the Roses), Tawny Port (seventh), Taiba (12th),
White Abarrio (16th) and Cyberknife (18th).

My selections for the Pennsylvania Derby are below:

1. Taiba
2. Zandon
3. Cyberknife
4. Tawny Port

A $1.7 million auction purchase, Taiba became the first horse to ever win the Grade I Santa Anita Derby with just one race under his belt. I picked him to win the Kentucky Derby and the Haskell. Even though he lost those two races, I am not about to jump ship this Saturday.

I still believe in Taiba. I think he is an extremely talented colt with much upside. I like the way he has trained up to the Pennsylvania Derby. He’s had seven published workouts since the Haskell, four of which were bullet drills.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said before the Haskell that he would have preferred to have had one more week of training with Taiba going into that race. The Pennsylvania Derby will be Taiba’s first start in nine weeks, which means Baffert has had plenty of time to prepare the Kentucky-bred Gun Runner colt for this assignment.

While I expect Taiba to win the Pennsylvania Derby if he’s the horse I think he is, I also recognize that maybe I’m overrating him. Perhaps Taiba just isn’t as good as I think he is and will make it three losses in a row Saturday. If that does turn out to be the case, my feeling is the race is there for either Zandon or Cyberknife to win.

You sure can’t fault Zandon in terms of consistency. The Kentucky-bred Upstart colt has never finished worse than third in seven career starts.

If Taiba does not get the job done Saturday, I think this is a golden opportunity for the Chad Brown-trained Zandon to shine. That’s because Epicenter is not in this race.

Epicenter and Zandon have met four times. Zandon has finished behind Epicenter all four times. Talk about a thorn in somebody’s side.

While Epicenter won Saratoga’s Grade I Travers Stakes with authority by 5 1/4 lengths at 1 1/4 miles on Aug. 27, Cyberknife nosed out Zandon for second.

Cyberknife was no match for Epicenter in the final furlong of the Travers. But I think Cyberknife does deserve some credit for being able to hold on well enough to eke out the place.

Keep in mind Cyberknife has won two Grade I races at the Pennsylvania Derby trip of 1 1/8 miles. In addition to his Haskell victory, he won Oaklawn Park’s Grade I Arkansas Derby by 2 3/4 lengths at 1 1/8 miles in early April.

Brad Cox trains both Cyberknife and Tawny Port.

Watch out for Tawny Port. I think he showed enough in Saratoga’s Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes on July 30 to make him dangerous Saturday.

Epicenter won the Jim Dandy by 1 1/2 lengths. Tawny Port gave a good account of himself to finish third, only a half-length behind runner-up Zandon.

In Tawny Port’s only start between the Kentucky Derby and Jim Dandy, he won the Grade III Ohio Derby at Thistledown. White Abarrio finished second.

Earlier this year, White Abarrio and Simplification finished first and third, respectively, in Gulfstream Park’s Grade I Florida Derby on April 2.

Since the Florida Derby, White Abarrio has lost three straight, while Simplification has lost four in a row.


Below are the Beyer Speed Figures for Pennsylvania Derby winners going back to 1992 (the first year they were listed in the American Racing Manual):

2021 Hot Rod Charlie (111)
2020 not run
2019 Math Wizard (99)
2018 McKinzie (107)
2017 West Coast (107)
2016 Connect (103)
2015 Frosted (106)
2014 Bayern (110)
2013 Will Take Charge (105)
2012 Handsome Mike (93)
2011 To Honor and Serve (105)
2010 Morning Line (103)
2009 Gone Astray (104)
2008 Anak Nakal (100)
2007 Timber Reserve (105)
2006 not run
2005 Sun King (103)
2004 Love of Money (112)
2003 Grand Hombre (108)
2002 Harlan’s Holiday (96)
2001 Macho Uno (104)
2000 Pine Dance (105)
1999 Smart Guy (109)
1998 Rock and Roll (110)
1997 Frisk Me Now (114)
1996 Devil’s Honor (114)
1995 Pineing Patty (108)
1994 Meadow Flight (106)
1993 Wallenda (100)
1992 Thelastcrusade (107)


When Flightline won the Grade I, $1 million Pacific Classic 19 1/4 lengths at Del Mar on Sept. 3, he smashed the record for the race’s largest margin of victory, which had been Accelerate’s 12 1/2 lengths in 2018. The Pacific Classic was first run in 1991.

Flightline was credited with a 126 Beyer Speed Figure, which also was a record for the Pacific Classic. Prior to Flightline, the highest Beyer by a Pacific Classic winner had been Candy Ride’s 123 in 2003.

The 126 Beyer for Flightline in the Pacific Classic is tied for the second-biggest figure in any race since the Beyers were first made public in 1991 (initially in the Racing Times, then in the Daily Racing Form).

Ghostzapper has the distinction of owning the highest Beyer Speed Figure since 1991. He recorded a 128 when he won Monmouth Park’s Grade III Philip H. Iselin Handicap at 1 1/8 miles by 10 3/4 lengths on a sloppy track in 2004. Ghostzapper then captured the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic at 1 1/4 miles later in 2004 at Lone Star Park. His 124 Beyer in the BC Classic is tied with 1989 winner Sunday Silence for the biggest figure in the history of the BC Classic.

According to Andy Beyer, creator of the Beyer Speed Figures, three other horses have run a 126 since 1991. They all did it in 1997. The three were Formal Gold, Gentlemen and Will’s Way.

Beyer, who has called Flightline’s Pacific Classic a “great” performance, sees the colt as having the potential to reach 130 at some point.

A Beyer Speed Figure does not take into account how easily a horse wins. I long have felt that the Beyer Speed Figures should add a plus in a situation like Flightline’s Pacific Classic victory. Because Flightline was far from all out, I think a 126+ would be a truer reflection of his Pacific Classic performance.

Flightline set yet another record in the Pacific Classic by receiving the best Thoro-Graph number in the 35 years that they have been computing those speed figures.

In terms of Beyer Speed Figures, the higher the number the better. The opposite is true for Thoro-Graph numbers.

According to Bill Finley of the Thoroughbred Daily News, Flightline’s Thoro-Graph number for the Pacific Classic was a negative 8 1/2.

The previous lowest Thoro-Graph number was Frosted’s negative 8 when he won the Grade I Met Mile at Belmont Park by 14 1/4 lengths with a rapid final time of 1:32.73.

I have said many times that I consider Beyer Speed Figures to be a useful tool for horseplayers. But I’ve also said that I believe Thoro-Graph numbers are superior to the Beyers. That’s because Thoro-Graph takes more factors into account than the Beyers. According to Thoro-Graph, “each number on a sheet represents a performance rating arrived at by using time of the race, beaten lengths, ground lost or saved on the turns, weight carried, and any effects wind conditions had on the time of the race.”

In the case of the Thoro-Graph numbers, a horse who finished second, or even lower, can get a better number than the winner. This is one of the reasons I believe that Thoro-Graph is better than the Beyers. I consider a Thoro-Graph number to be a much truer reflection of a horse’s performance than a Beyer. Thoro-Graph’s approach reflects the reality that the winner is not necessarily the horse who ran the best race.

The winner of a race never gets a lower Beyer Speed Figure than the horse who finished second, the horse who finished second never gets a lower Beyer than the horse who finished third, and so on down through the order of finish.

I think it’s extremely interesting that while Flightline’s 8 1/2 broke Thoro-Graph’s record for the best number ever given, Thoro-Graph owner Jerry Brown said that he made the decision to give him a negative 8 1/2 when a much better number actually had received serious consideration.

“When I first looked at it, I could have given this horse a much better number,” Brown said. “There were only two dirt routes on the card and neither had big fields. When substantial proportions of those fields don’t fire, you’re left to make figures off a very small number of horses. That makes it difficult. If I had the other horses he beat running anywhere near what they usually run, he would have gotten a negative 11 1/2.

“As a figure-maker, you have to sometimes decide which scenario is most likely. You’re already going to give a horse the best number of all time, even if I did it the way I did it. You have to decide which is more likely, that several other horses he ran against did not fire, or they did fire and Flightline ran a figure that would be breaking the sound barrier or a human running the three-minute mile. If you give a horse a minus 11 1/2, you’re talking about Bob Beamon stuff.”

Beamon obliterated the record for the long jump at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City by nearly two feet.

Brown said the choice that he had to make was to either go with a negative 11 1/2, which would be “the sort of thing that happens once in a billion,” or opt for a negative 8 1/2 with the thought being that “several horses that ran behind him, ones who are usually pretty consistent, just did not run their race.”

Even though the decision was made to go with the lower figure of negative 8 1/2, Flightline “still wound up getting the best figure of all time,” Brown said.

However, according to Brown, the door is not closed as to the possibility of retroactively changing Flightline’s Pacific Classic figure to a negative 11 1/2 on down the line.

“If he wins the Breeders’ Cup and it looks again like that figure should be a minus 11 1/2, I’ll give him a minus 11 1/2 [for the Pacific Classic].”


Modern Games is a newcomer on the Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll after winning the Grade I, $1 million Woodbine Mile with authority by 5 1/4 lengths as a 3-5 favorite last Saturday.

The Top 10 for this week is below:

Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)

1. 350 Flightline (35)
2. 309 Life Is Good
3. 256 Epicenter
4. 192 Nest
5. 191 Olympiad
6. 143 Jackie’s Warrior
7. 95 Country Grammer
8. 82 Malathaat
9. 51 Jack Christopher
10. 47 Modern Games


No change from last week in the order of the Top 10 in this week’s Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic Rankings.

The Top 10 for this week is below:

Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)

1. 290 Flightline (29)
2. 244 Life Is Good
3. 228 Epicenter
4. 187 Olympiad
5. 155 Country Grammer
6. 107 Hot Rod Charlie
6. 86 Cyberknife
8. 77 Happy Saver
9. 46 Americanrevolution
10. 36 Taiba