09/22/2011 3:31PM

Derbies come in all sizes


A writer is wise to stay away from the use of the symbolic as much as possible, given the obvious risks of looking like a failed poet or a stunted hack still trying to impress his ninth-grade English teacher.

Still, it’s hard to resist the temptation when considering two races offered on opposite sides of the continent on Saturday, both of them beginning with “P” and ending in “erby.” If they don’t stand for the way two of the most important racing states have answered modern economic challenges, nothing does.

The Pomona Derby, a precious little midway trinket plopped down in the midst of the Los Angeles County Fair, will be run at a mile and one-sixteenth round and round the Fairplex Park bullring for a purse of $50,000. That’s about $30,000 to the winner, with $500 guaranteed for finishing last of the seven entered. It costs $12 to get into the fair, although once you’re there you can waltz into the racetrack for free.

The Pennsylvania Derby, fueled by its stand-alone casino, is a 1 1/8-mile event offering a million-dollar purse with a $10,000 check just for showing up. The race is run at what used to be Philadelphia Park, known to locals as “The Pha” and to the sad dinosaurs in the crowd as Keystone. Now it’s called simply Parx, a geographically neutral name that looks good in neon and was deemed necessary as long as the casino advertising slogan was going to be “So Vegas You’ll Think You’re in Vegas.” Actually, you’re in Bensalem.

For $50,000 in California (pop. 37.2 million, unemployment rate 12.1 percent) they got 3-year-olds trained by Bob Baffert, Jeff Mullins, and two from Doug O’Neill, including Nahem, the winner of the Snow Chief Stakes last April at Hollywood Park and Luckarack, the winner last time out of the Jim Kostoff Stakes, named for a former chairman of the county fair. Legend has it he wanted to call the place Plex. Obviously, he was ahead of his time.

For a cool million in Pennsylvania (pop. 12.7 million, unemployment rate 8.2 percent) they got Belmont Stakes winner Ruler On Ice, Travers two-three finishers Rattlesnake Bridge and JW Blue, Wood Memorial runner-up Arthur’s Tale, and the new and improved version of former 2-year-old hotshot To Honor and Serve.

Okay, so money can buy you love.

Of greater concern – or at least it should be to Californians – is the fact that, (a) there is no race in the West other than the million-dollar Santa Anita Derby in April that comes close to what is offered in Pennsylvania and, (b) not a single West Coast owner or trainer had the ammunition or the inclination to ship east of the Alleghennys. Not even Bob Baffert.

“I thought about running Coil there, but he‘s finally turned around after the Travers, so I‘m thinking of keeping him home for the Goodwood,” Baffert said of the stable’s Haskell Invitational winner. Coil was unplaced in the Travers.

Baffert’s second-best 3-year-old is Prayer for Relief, a son of Jump Start owned by Ahmed Zayat who has become a poster child for art of cherry-picking ripe casino money like the pile offered in Pennsylvania. He has won more money this year than Tizway, Gio Ponti, or Blind Luck, arguably three of the best Thoroughbreds this side of the pond.

In June, Prayer for Relief won the $250,000 Iowa Derby at Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino. In August he won the $750,000 West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort. Two weeks ago he won the $500,000 Super Derby at Harrah’s Louisiana Downs, the operative word being “Harrah’s.” Not since the days of Smarten – winner of the American Derby, the Illinois Derby, the Ohio Derby, and the inaugural Pennsylvania Derby in 1979 – has a colt racked up such a record of “little d” derby success.

“He’s just getting better and better,” Baffert said. “You’ve got to be impressed with the way he keeps on winning. I know he got an easy lead in the Super Derby, but any time you can go on the road like that you’re a pretty nice horse.”

In lieu of Pennsylvania, Baffert will be represented in the Pomona Derby by Uncle Sam, a son of Tapit owned by Kaleem Shah who has been working his way up the stable’s 3-year-old food chain. Uncle Sam was third in the Swaps last summer, finishing about a length behind Coil, and then was fourth to lesser beasts in the El Cajon at Del Mar.

“There’s nowhere to run him at Santa Anita,” Baffert said of the upcoming fall meet. “In California, the Swaps used to have a good purse, but they’ve gutted that. After that there’s nothing for 3-year-olds except on grass, either at Del Mar or coming up at Santa Anita. It seems like they’re trying to force you to run against older horses in races like the Pacific Classic or the Goodwood. And there’s not too many who can do that.”

So it has come to this. Three-time Kentucky Derby winner and Hall of Famer Bob Baffert will watch the one milllllllion-dollar Pennsylvania Derby on TV at the L.A. County Fair, power down a corn dog, then go out and saddle Uncle Sam for half a buck.

“I’d love to win the Pomona Derby,” Baffert said, and he meant it. “I don’t think I’ve ever run in the Pomona Derby. I’ll take the family, we’ll spend the day at the fair.

“I was talking to my son Canyon and told him I was running in the Derby at Pomona,” Baffert added. “He said why not take Coil over there.”

But could Coil make the turns?

“I don’t know,” Baffert replied. “We don‘t even know if Uncle Sam can.”