The $1.32 million Pennsylvania Derby (G2) was supposed to settle scores among the top three from the Kentucky Derby (G1) – Nyquist, Exaggerator, and Gun Runner – but the Triple Crown trail veterans were all upended at Parx on Saturday by late-blooming Connect.

Benefiting from a ground-saving ride by Javier Castellano, Connect rallied from several lengths off the pace and outkicked Gun Runner, who spun out wide, by a half-length. The 61-1 Wild About Deb got up for third. Nyquist and Exaggerator were both off the board and well beaten.

A 10-1 shot trained by Chad Brown, Connect was coming off a sixth behind sensational track record-setter Arrogate in the Travers (G1) at Saratoga. Thus the Penn Derby result flattered fellow late bloomer Arrogate, who could stake his claim to three-year-old championship honors in the November 5 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Santa Anita.

Connect broke his maiden on May 7, the same day Nyquist was winning the “Run for the Roses.” Few could have thought back then that the Derby runners would become vulnerable as the season progressed, but that’s exactly what’s happened.

Nyquist spiked a fever after his third to mud-loving Exaggerator in the Preakness (G1), skipped the Belmont (G1), and wound up fourth to Exaggerator in the Haskell Invitational (G1), again in the slop. Freshened by a swimming vacation at San Luis Rey, Nyquist went off as the 6-5 favorite in the Penn Derby, where he got a fast track and a theoretically better post position. It didn’t matter, though, as he tired to sixth. Last year’s champion two-year-old colt just hasn’t regained his old sparkle, perhaps bottomed out by the Triple Crown trail.

Exaggerator had shown first-class form on fast tracks in the past, notably in his terrific second to Nyquist in the Kentucky Derby. But ever since, he has morphed into a mud-dependent runner unable to land a blow if it’s dry. He’s been drubbed in his last three starts in fast conditions, suffering double-digit losses in the Belmont and Travers (11th in both), and now again in the Penn Derby (seventh). Like his old foe Nyquist, Exaggerator doesn’t seem the same horse at present, and you’ve got to wonder if the long grind has gotten to him as well.

In contrast, Kentucky Derby third Gun Runner has remained a steady yardstick throughout the summer. Other than his fifth in the Haskell (excused by his distaste for slop), Gun Runner dominated the Matt Winn (G3), finished third to Arrogate in the Travers, and deserves extra credit for his fine second in the Penn Derby. Unlike Connect, Gun Runner endured a wide trip, and the substantial ground loss he suffered turning for home was much more than his margin of defeat.

Why has Gun Runner held up better than Nyquist and Exaggerator? Every individual is different, but it could be significant that Gun Runner had an easier campaign at two. While Nyquist and Exaggerator got an early start as juveniles, Gun Runner didn’t debut until last September. Nyquist and Exaggerator, who were competing in the big two-year-old races, have been under the rigors of prolonged competition at the highest level for a longer stretch of time. That’s an important consideration, lest we judge them harshly for their declining form.

At the same time, it’s also apparent that the 2016 Triple Crown was missing a few very talented sophomores who weren’t ready to try the Derby, Preakness, or Belmont. Connect, a May 6 foal, is in that category. He made rapid strides since his maiden score, dominating an allowance on Belmont Day and wiring the July 29 Curlin (the race named in honor of his sire) at Saratoga. Connect’s progress was halted in the Travers, but he’s back in business now.

"We always thought a lot of Connect," Brown told NYRA publicity Sunday. "He's a horse that took a while to come around. He had a couple of minor injuries along the way and he finally showed yesterday what we thought all along about him; that he could be a top three-year-old dirt horse. We're very excited about him. So far he looks OK and we'll form a plan in the days to come. 

"The Breeders' Cup will be considered but there are other races as well and other routes we can take with him. He's definitely an exciting horse for the future."

The biggest what-might-have-beens revolve around Arrogate and Travers runner-up American Freedom, both trained by Bob Baffert. Had either of them come to hand soon enough to contest the Triple Crown…

Those tantalizing questions, and the unknowable answers, are part of the fabric of racing history – as well as its enduring mystique.

Penn Derby photos courtesy of Equi-Photo

Top: Connect and Gun Runner by Taylor Ejdys

Sidebar: up the track shot by Bill Denver