From The Blood-Horse

Coady Photography

Coady Photography

Following 24 stakes at five different tracks that saw $5.2 million in purse money awarded, a familiar name stands atop the final standings following the completion of the 2016 Penn Gaming Racing Challenge as jockey Javier Castellano claimed the title as top rider in the series for a third consecutive year.

Castellano’s 147 points placed him 10 ahead of runner-up Florent Geroux.

Castellano won the richest race in the series when he took the $1,250,000 Charles Town Classic (gr. II) for the second time aboard Stonestreet Stables, Susan Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith’s Stanford. However, the Charles Town Classic wasn’t the only race the three-time Eclipse Award winner would claim in the Challenge. He also won the Robert Hilton Memorial with Dig Deep, the $200,000 Penn Oaks with Sweet Victory, and $100,000 Wild & Wonderful with Rise Up.

Geroux won five races in the series, the most notable being his victory aboard Catch a Glimpse in the $500,000 Penn Mile (gr. IIIT). He also won the $200,000 John Connally Turf Cup (gr. IIIT) on Da Big Hoss and, last week, took the $300,000 Zia Park Oaks on Family Tree.

Geroux’s 137 points placed him well ahead of third place finisher Joe Bravo, who notched 73 points.

Trainer Mark Casse captured his first title as leading trainer in the Penn Gaming Challenge series due in large part to Catch a Glimpse’s aforementioned victory over the boys in the $500,000 Penn Mile in June. Casse also sent out Kaigun to a runner-up effort in the John Connally Turf Cup, Theogony to a fourth place finish in the $400,000 Houston Ladies Classic (gr. III), Grand Shores to a runner-up finish behind Rise Up in the Wild & Wonderfuland, most recently, Awesome Banner who was placed second in the $200,000 Steel Valley Sprint at Mahoning Valley.

Casse’s 120 points were easily enough to land him the top spot over second-place finisher Todd Pletcher who racked up 83 points. Pletcher trained Stanford to his win in the Charles Town Classic and Sweet Victory to her triumph in the Penn Oaks while also saddling Sophia’s Song to a third place finish in the $350,000 Charles Town Oaks. Mike Maker, the top trainer in the 2015 Penn Gaming Challenge finished third with 59 points while Tom Amoss, and Robertino Diodoro completed the top 5.

Owner Bryan Hawk hadn’t started a horse in the 2016 Penn Gaming Racing Challenge until Zia Park’s Land of Enchantment Day on Nov. 23 but wound up the leading owner in the series following back to back upset scores with Code West in the $150,000 Zia Park Championship and Pass the Buck in the $200,000 Zia Park Derby. Hawk is the principal owner for Code West along with Leo and Tim Hawk and is the sole owner of Pass the Buck.

Eventual runner-up Reddam Racing sent out Land Over Sea in the Zia Park Oaks, but the filly who ran second to Cathryn Sophia in May’s Longines Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) checked in seventh. Later that evening, Colts Neck Stables, who went into Thanksgiving week occupying the top spot, needed Awesome Speed to finish fifth or better in the $200,000 Fabulous Strike at Penn National to win the series but saw their 3-year-old colt finish ninth, beaten 11 1/2 lengths. Earlier in the year, Colts Neck Stables won a pair of races in the series when Take Cover was victorious in the Pennsylvania Governor’s Cup and Dig Deep won the Hilton Memorial on the Charles Town Classic undercard.

Gary and Mary West, owners of dominating Zia Oaks winner Family Tree and Mark Russell, owner of Swatara winner Charitable Annuity rounded out the top 5.

The Penn Gaming Racing Challenge, inaugurated by Penn National Gaming in 2014, ties together 24 stakes races worth more than $5 million purse money at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course, Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course, Sam Houston Race Park, and Zia Park. The Challenge includes tie-ins between groups of races in the series, as well as bonuses and prizes that include free nominations, refund of entry and starter fees, and trips to the PNGI owned M Resort in Las Vegas.

All owners, trainers, and jockeys who participate in the unrestricted stakes on the designated event days will receive two points. Additionally, points are awarded for top-five finishes in varying scales, based on the value or grade of the race. The additional points range from the 25 received as a result of a win in a grade II, to one (1) point for a fifth-place finish in an unrestricted stakes race worth between $50,000 and $75,000.

At the end of the Challenge, the owner, trainer, and jockey with the most points each receive two round-trip airfare tickets and a three-night stay at the 390-room M Resort located on South Las Vegas Boulevard in Las Vegas. In addition to the travel rewards, the owner and trainer accumulating the most points at the end of all seven events will have their entry and starting fees refunded in any unrestricted stakes race run at a PNGI Thoroughbred track in 2017, with the exception of Penn National itself. Previous winners include Fox Hill Farms and Ken and Sarah Ramsey as the top owner and Mike Maker and Chad Brown as the leading trainer.

The first event in the 2017 Penn Gaming Racing Challenge will again take place at Sam Houston on January 29 when it plays host to the $400,000 Houston Ladies Classic and $250,000 John B. Connally Turf Cup.

PENN GAMING RACING CHALLENGE WINNERS
Year    Owner    Trainer    Jockey

2016    Bryan Hawk    Mark E. Casse    Javier Castellano
2015    Fox Hill Farm    Michael J. Maker    Javier Castellano
2014    Ken & Sarah Ramsey    Chad C. Brown    Javier Castellano