01/27/2010 12:00AM

Derby prospects flowing out of Philly Park


PHILADELPHIA - It is futile to resist the forces of the Pha or the region that surrounds the most important racetrack in America.

Forget Belmont Park, Saratoga, Santa Anita, Gulfstream Park, or even Churchill Downs. Well, remember Churchill on the first Saturday in May.

But if you are serious about locating the map to the Kentucky Derby, there really is only one place to start. It is Philadelphia Park on Street Road in Bensalem, Pa., surrounded by a triangle of traffic from nearby Route 1, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and Interstate 95.

I admit when Smarty Jones emerged from Philadelphia Park in 2004 to win the Derby, Preakness, and nearly the Triple Crown that I thought it was a fluke. What did I know?

Then, we had Afleet Alex the next year. Yes, he began at Delaware Park and never actually raced at the Pha, but his five owners were Philly people. I still see Joe Lerro and Chuck Zacney at the Pha all the time. They love the Pha. Really, who doesn't love the Pha?

Then, we had Barbaro the year after that. Yes, he began at Delaware Park and never raced at the Pha and the Jacksons actually live in Chester County, the other side of the city from the track. But I have seen Roy and Gretchen Jackson at the Pha. I don't know if they love the Pha, but they have been there to watch their horses run.

So, that would be two Derbies, two Preaknesses, and a Belmont Stakes in three years. Any track doing better?

Hard Spun won the 2006 Pennsylvania Futurity at the Pha before his runner-up finish in the 2007 Derby.

Not sure what happened in 2008, but I did see Rick Dutrow at the Pha once when he showed up with Love of Money to win the 2004 Pennsylvania Derby. He bet a lot and the horse won by a lot. It could have been the Pha karma that rubbed off on Big Brown in 2008.

Don't know what happened in 2009 either. Mine That Bird was nominated for the Pennsylvania Derby. The owners of Rachel Alexandra surely were thinking of the Pennsylvania Derby or the Cotillion. Monmouth Park is an hour away. Sadly, they simply did not have a race for Zenyatta.

Which brings us to 2010.

Did anybody notice the results of the first two Gulfstream Park stakes for 3-year-olds? Did anybody notice where the winners had run in their most recent races? The Pha and the Pha.

A Little Warm won his maiden on Nov. 23 at the Pha. He did not just win. He crushed the field by 10 3/4 lengths and earned an 89 Beyer.

That won the colt an all-expenses paid trip to Palm Meadows, where trainer Tony Dutrow is spending much of his winter.

On Jan. 9, that was A Little Warm winning the Spectacular Bid Stakes by 1 1/2 lengths while getting a 100 Beyer.

Winslow Homer may have won his maiden at Saratoga, but he won the same trip south with the Dutrow stable after a powerful 12 1/2-length allowance win at the Pha on Nov. 20. That got him a 92 Beyer.

And that was Winslow Homer last Saturday at Gulfstream in the Holy Bull, sitting in nicely behind a wall of horses, splitting horses in the stretch, running for the lead, and then holding off and pulling away from favored Jackson Bend to win by three-quarters of a length.

The colt got a 91 Beyer, but was more visually impressive than the number. And remember this was a race Dutrow, who has a big string at the Pha, was not really targeting. He was just wanted to see enough to stay on the Derby trail. He saw enough.

"I have to be happy although I'm concerned,'' Dutrow said. "It's only January. . . . We did what we did in his 2-year-old year for it to pay off in his 3-year-old year.''

There were just three races in 2009. Dutrow is still trying to figure out how many the colt needs to get ready for the Derby.

"This Triple Crown deal is so brutal,'' Dutrow said. "The horse has to be an iron horse. There is no easier kind of way of doing this.''

No, there is not.

But, if you are a serious player trying to get a head start on your Derby homework, there is no better place to start than the Pha.

Seriously, this is no longer a fluke. The slot money has essentially doubled purses. Better horses are showing up all the time. It may get better still.

The massive new slots casino opened last month in the parking lot, not far from the main entrance to the track. Table games have been legalized in the state. Craps and blackjack will be in the casino sometime later this year. Poker is coming to the second floor of the racetrack building. Now that all the slot machines are out of there, the first floor of the track building is being remodeled so race fans will have a nice place to hang.

The first floor could reopen just in the time for the Derby, where the Pha fans may see another Pha horse win the race.