03/07/2007 1:00AM

Great Hunter is newest favorite son


PHILADELPHIA - What would a Kentucky Derby run-up be without a Pennsylvania connection? Really, isn't it mandatory?

While some have been focusing on Pennsylvania-bred Hard Spun, the most accomplished statebred of his generation is Great Hunter, who spent the early winter in California gearing up for his 3-year-old debut. And it was a serious debut.

Great Hunter was impressive in every way in the Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita last Saturday. Running against eight opponents of dubious accomplishment, Great Hunter ran by much of the field on the far turn like a really good horse. His gallop-out after the wire was also impressive. His Beyer Speed Figure of 101 was a nice start to 2007.

Great Hunter was born on Phil Fanning's Ivy Dell Farm in Unionville, Pa., a few furlongs from the New Bolton Center and the Lael Farm of Barbaro's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson. It is a few more furlongs to what was Someday Farm, where Smarty Jones was born. Great Hunter's dam, Zenith, boards at Mark Reid's Walnut Green Farm in West Grove, Pa. Part of Walnut Green is adjacent to Lael Farm.

Carrying the Pennsylvania connection to the next logical step, you see that Zenith was trained by John Servis, who is based at Philly Park and trained Smarty Jones. Zenith won more than $200,000 in a racing career mostly in the Mid-Atlantic. With the success of Great Hunter, Zenith has just been bred to Bernardini.

Unlike other recent Pennsylvania stories, Great Hunter is not owned or trained by anybody from the state. The colt was sold for $30,000 in the first consignment of the new Walnut Green in 2005, shortly after Reid and his partners bought it from Russell and Richard Jones.

After Great Hunter ran two races last spring in Texas, for trainer Joe Petalino, the money people looking for a hot 2-year-old started making bids for Great Hunter. One of the bidders was Reid himself, for owner Ed Gann. When he started the process, Reid did not even realize Great Hunter was the colt his company had sold. In the end, J. Paul Reddam outbid him. The price was thought to be around $500,000.

Reid would not mind having Gann own Great Hunter, but is not disappointed by how this has all turned out, given that Great Hunter is a serious Derby candidate for trainer Doug O'Neill.

"This means a great deal for us,'' Reid said. "One, that we can produce a top horse on this ground outside the hallowed grounds of Kentucky, and two, that we can raise them up right. Our business is raising horses that people will go and buy and hopefully go on and do well. This colt looks like he's one of them. You've got to like the style of running he has.''

Zenith is owned by one of Walnut Green's clients, Dan Ryan, who bought her from Fanning. Rick Porter originally purchased Zenith as yearling for $140,000 at Saratoga. On the advice of Russell Jones, Fanning bought Zenith at a 2001 Kentucky sale for $150,000. Porter, of course, owns Hard Spun, a colt that Servis purchased for him and is now trained by Larry Jones.

Fanning rode Ned's Flying, the 1958 winner of the famed Maryland Hunt Cup. Once the paddock judge at Philadelphia Park, Fanning decided to sell his breeding stock in 2006. Ryan was the fortunate purchaser of Zenith.

Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, and Barbaro had Pennsylvania connections all the way - owners, trainers, and in the case of Smarty Jones, a jockey. Great Hunter it not like that, but, with slot machines now whirring at Philadelphia Park, purses on the rise, and the state's breeding industry about to blow up, will anybody be surprised that another horse from Kentucky North is on his way to Kentucky with a serious chance at the Derby?