Penn Mile: Hoping for a godfather-godson exacta box
In Friday’s Grade 2, $400,000 Penn Mile for three-year-olds at Penn National, trainers McLane Hendriks and Chuck Lawrence will have more than a rooting interest. Hendriks will saddle the talented Witty in the turf fixture, while Lawrence will send out Wow Whata Summer.
And each will be rooting for the other to round out the exacta.
“That would be amazing,” Hendriks said with a laugh. “As long as we’re on top.”
“As long as I’m in front,” Lawrence agreed. Or, technically, disagreed.
The godfather-godson exacta, or its opposite number, is a new one to us, but that’s what the two men will be hoping for come Friday. Lawrence, a close friend of Hendriks’ father Richard, is Hendriks’ godfather.
“He’s my dad’s best friend,” Hendriks said. “They were steeplechase jockeys together.”
“He has a lot of his dad in him,” Lawrence said. “I was best friends with his dad, but we’d be on the entry, and he’d still put me through the wringer.”
Hendriks, 30, and Lawrence are used to being on the same side of the fence, so to speak.
“I’ve worked for him in the past up at Saratoga,” Hendriks said. “We’ve had some success up there and some pretty fun days up there. I kind of followed in [Lawrence’s and his dad’s] footsteps as a steeplechase jockey and then transitioned to be a trainer.”
In addition to his father and godfather, Hendriks’ mother, Lizzie Merryman is a longtime horsewoman, a winner of more than 150 races as a trainer and a member of a racing family with deep Mid-Atlantic roots.
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“He certainly has the background to be a good horseman, a helluva horseman,” Lawrence said.
“He’s an incredible trainer himself,” Hendriks said of his godfather. “He’s had Breeders’ Cup horses.”
The best of Lawrence’s runners was Glorious Empire, who won the Grade 1 Sword Dancer and Grade 2 Bowling Green in back-to-back Saratoga starts in 2018. He finished up the track in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf but bounced back in his next start to take the Grade 2 Ft. Lauderdale.
The best of Hendriks’ runners? That’d be Witty. In fairness, Hendriks has only sent out nine different horses to make 19 starts in his brief training career. On the other hand, Witty’s a pretty darn good one. “A loaded gun,” Lawrence calls him.
Witty, bred and owned by Hendriks’ mother Lizzie Merryman, has won three of four starts in his career. Two races back, he won the Pennsylvania Nursery for PA-breds at Parx Racing by over five lengths. Last time out, he won the Spectacular Bid at Laurel Park by almost eight. That race has produced four next-out winners.
That was back in January, though, and Witty hasn’t raced since. By design, Hendriks said.
“He just needed to kind of grow into himself mentally and physically, kind of finish up growing,” the trainer explained. “Just mentally, with his training in the last couple of weeks, he’s been much more mature.”
The Penn Mile will also be Witty’s first race on grass. But Hendriks is confident his charge will handle it, and his breeding certainly indicates he will. His sire Great Notion has gotten plenty of good turf horses – runners like Havelock, Phlash Phelps and Talk Show Man come to mind – and Witty’s half-sister Caravel (by Mizzen Mast) is a Grade 3 winner on the turf.
Carol Cedeno will ride Witty, as she has all of the gelding’s prior starts.
Lawrence’s trainee Wow Whata Summer, a homebred for Jeremy Brooks, is less accomplished than Witty but more of a known commodity on the turf. As a two-year-old he finished fourth in a pair of two-turn grass stakes, the Kitten’s Joy at Colonial Downs and the Laurel Futurity.
“Last year we were a little disappointed in this horse,” Lawrence said. “He’d range up there and just kind of hang at the end of his races. We weren’t sure whether it was being a colt or greenness or a little bit of both.”
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Lawrence gave the son of Summer Front the winter off and had him gelded. He liked what he’s seen since.
“I’ve been really excited about his works, and the owner’s game enough to try,” he said. “I’m a risk-taker, so we figure we put him in there and see what we have.”
In his first start back, in a Laurel allowance April 23, Wow Whata Summer closed willingly in a 5 ½-furlong sprint, finishing third, beaten two lengths by Uncaptured Spirit, who is also here. Tyler Conner retains the mount on Wow Whata Summer.
Both Witty and Wow Whata Summer are 12-1 on the morning line. Most eyes will be on Annapolis, as the Todd Pletcher trainee looks to run his career-starting record to 3-for-3. He already owns a stakes win, in the Grade 2 Pilgrim at Belmont Park last October, and he’s the 9-5 morning line favorite.
Other contenders include Red Danger and Fort Washington. The former, trained by Brian Lynch, has won two career stakes and is 5-2 on the morning line. The latter, lined at 7-2, was second in the Woodhaven last out at Aqueduct for Shug McGaughey.
It’ll be no easy spot for Hendriks to get his first graded stakes victory, or for Lawrence to grab his first since Glorious Empire was tearing it up.
“It’s incredible and surreal to be in graded company against some of the best trainers of all time in my first year of training,” Hendriks said. “Growing up as a racing fan, now to be in the program with Todd Pletcher and Shug McGaughey and even my godfather.”
As long as it’s a godson-godfather exacta.