09/05/2006 11:00PM

Always an adventure at Spa South


PHILADELPHIA - The railroad tracks that I used to walk down were still there. The hole in the fence where I used to sneak in was gone. The Ferris wheel still loomed over the far turn. The joint pretty much looked the same as when I left it.

New York has Saratoga. Maryland has Timonium, also known as the York Road Spa. Saratoga has all that natural beauty. Timonium has a McDonald's beyond the four-furlong chute.

Last week, when I went to the Timonium races for the first time in 20 years, I once again discovered the beauty of the four-furlong race. Add up the first three races last Wednesday, and you had one Belmont Stakes. However, you see things at Timonium you would never see at Belmont.

Take one of my exacta keys in the opener, a $7,500 claimer for horses that had never won four races. Bea Slick had won three races in 2006. How could he not hit the board? Easily, as it turned out.

Starting from the inside, Bea Slick veered even farther inside in the first few strides and dumped rider J.D. Acosta. With that, I started looking for 6-2 or, failing that, 2-6. It was 2-6, a saver. I had the 6-2 combination four times as much.

As soon as the horses crossed the finish line and I noticed Scott Lake in the winner's circle, I had to wonder what I was thinking. Eutaw Run, the 6, was trained by a man with four winners all year, and I liked that horse four times as much as I liked Lake's horse, Toronto Flash (the 2). Lake was one winner away from 400 on the year. I bet on four instead of 400. What went into that thinking, exactly?

I went down to speak with Lake. He was making his annual appearance at Timonium. He had started the day at the other Spa, stopped at his home in Bensalem, Pa., to take a shower, and then driven on to the real Spa. Does this man ever sleep?

Lake's timing was perfect. The amazing Outcashem was in the second race. This was going to be win No. 400 on the way to 600. Outcashem, a 5-year-old, was 7 for 7, with earnings of $233,930 in 2006. He had earned four triple-digit Beyers in his last five races. This horse runs out of the TV set in four-furlong races. How could he lose in a four-horse field?

Well, he could get DQ'd after blowing away the field at 1-10. That could happen. It did happen.

Outcashem got into a bumping duel with Pretty Cagey right after the break. Pretty Cagey got the worst of it, and Outcashem was disqualified and placed third.

There was no show betting. Almost all of the place money came in on Outcashem and generated a minus pool. The cynics around me in the posh Spa dining room wondered if management could come up with the cash. There was no need to after Outcashem was placed third and the place prices in a four-horse field came back $38.40 and $36.40.

Obviously, that was the way to play. Toss Outcashem, bet the other three to place, and wait for the DQ. This really is an easy game, if you just stop to consider the possibilities.

Two races were in the books. In deference to the lunacy I had seen, I thought I would pass the third.

Whatever went down next, I was certain it could never surpass what I experienced one afternoon at the Spa 25 years ago, the day my $75 exacta blew away the field and I got $21. How does that happen? Only when the 2-5 favorite is scratched five minutes after the race is over. Don't ask. Trust me, it happened.

I made a bet on the fourth and went on a tour of the plant. Two minutes later, I went up to the grandstand seats where I used to watch the races back in the day. My two horses ran around the track together and I was slightly ahead for the day. I should have left.

Instead, I tried to handicap some 6 1/2-furlong races. What was I thinking? My Timonium brain was simply not good for more than 47 seconds.

After the finale, a classic maiden claimer, I was dispatched to the parking lot. The line of cars went on for more than four furlongs. I headed for the State Fair, looking for some answers, or at least some pig races. Alas, the pigs were on a break.

After a long tour of the fair, the line of cars was somehow longer. I wished I had parked on the other side of the tracks. Finally, I eventually escaped and vowed to come back - in 2026.