09/16/2014 11:19AM

Jerardi: Everything finally coming up roses for Pennsylvania Derby

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Scott Martinez/Los Alamitos
California Chrome, pictured here with Victor Espinoza on Aug. 22 at Los Alamitos, is entered in Saturday's Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing.

Six weeks after I arrived in Philadelphia to cover the new Garden State Park, the track opened on Monday, April 1, 1985. There were 30,000 people there that night. Given the millions of dollars in television ads leading up to the opening, it might have been 50,000 if Villanova had not been playing Georgetown for the NCAA men’s college basketball championship.

On the first Saturday of the meet, Spend a Buck won the Cherry Hill Mile. Two weeks later, he won the Garden State Stakes. Two weeks after that, he won the Kentucky Derby. The Derby winner skipped the Preakness to run in the Jersey Derby at Garden State on Memorial Day and go after a $2 million bonus. He won that too after an incredible ride by the legendary Laffit Pincay Jr.

So, I am thinking this is pretty cool. Show up. Watch the horse who is about to win the Kentucky Derby at your local track. Watch the same horse in his first race after the Derby at the same track.

Spend a Buck was supposed to run in the Pennsylvania Derby that September. Philadelphia Park and Garden State were owned by the same company, so it only made sense that the Garden State star would run at the sister track. Only Spend a Buck got hurt after winning the Monmouth Handicap and never raced again.

It was the first time a Kentucky Derby winner was supposed to run in Pennsylvania. Ten years ago, trainer John Servis announced that Smarty Jones was going to skip the Travers to run on Labor Day in the Pennsylvania Derby at his home track.

Only Smarty Jones was never the same after his heartbreaking second in the Belmont Stakes. I remember watching him try to train that summer. He could barely get into a gallop. It was sad. The horse had given everything during that Triple Crown season and had nothing left. It was announced that Smarty Jones would be retired.

If Spend a Buck and Smarty Jones, two horses with extensive local ties, did not make the Pennsylvania Derby, how could the race ever attract the Kentucky Derby winner?

Timing, money, and more money have provided the answer. Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome was entered Monday to run in Saturday’s $1 million Pennsylvania Derby.

The timing of the race, six weeks before the Breeders’ Cup and when California Chrome was ready to race for the first time since the Belmont Stakes, matched up perfectly. And it did not hurt that the track offers a $50,000 bonus to the owner and trainer of any horse who won a Triple Crown race, the Haskell Invitational, or the Travers. So, trainer Art Sherman and owner Dumb Ass Partners will each be due $100,000 when California Chrome comes out of the starting gate at around 5:45 p.m. Saturday as a heavy favorite to take down the $600,000 first prize.

So, nearly 30 years after missing out on Spend a Buck (my memory is that he was actually training at Philadelphia Park before the retirement announcement) and a decade after missing out on Smarty Jones, Parx Racing, the Pennsylvania Derby, and Pennsylvania get California Chrome, the most popular veteran of the entire Triple Crown series since Smarty Jones.

Neither Big Brown nor I’ll Have Another, the only other horses to win the Derby and Preakness between Smarty Jones and California Chrome, had the kind of story that attracts fans who don’t even follow the sport. Smarty Jones and California Chrome had it and have it. Barbaro was universally loved for what might have been and the struggle he put up to survive after the catastrophic injury in the Preakness. Afleet Alex was terrific but did not win the Derby. Curlin was great but not necessarily overwhelmingly popular.

California Chrome has a following. You knew it at the Derby, felt it at the Preakness, and were nearly overwhelmed by it at the Belmont.

That following will descend Saturday on Bensalem, the township just north of the Philadelphia city line. They will stretch the racetrack building, the apron, and the picnic grounds to their absolute limit. The Kentucky Derby winner finally is running in the Pennsylvania Derby.