09/12/2012 1:55PM

Jerardi: Parx puts together richest program Pennsylvania has ever seen

Barbara D. Livingston
Alpha (6) and Golden Ticket, who finished in a dead heat in the Travers, are expected to continue their rivalry in next weekend's Pennsylvania Derby.

I have been in Philadelphia long enough to remember Liberty Bell Park, which opened nearly 50 years ago and closed in 1986, the year after I got to town. Back in 1985, there was “The Bell” and Garden State Park across the Delaware River in New Jersey and that often forgotten track on Street Road in Bensalem, then called Keystone with that ugly “K” on the front of an even uglier building.

Now, Keystone/Philadelphia Park/Parx Racing has outlasted them all and is just a week away from putting on the best single racing program in the half-century that horse racing has been legal in Pennsylvania.

If you have spent any time on the backside or the frontside at the “Pha,” it is just a bit surreal that, with the notable exception of the Breeders’ Cup, the first American track to have two $1 million races on the same card will be the very same place that could for most of its existence charitably be called a dump.

Everything changed when slot machines were legalized in 2004 and came on line in the race track building in December 2006. Now, there is a giant casino building across the parking lot that, well before its third birthday this December, has already been expanded, as it is by far the largest grossing casino in the state.

Table games came on line two years ago so now there are slots, poker, and any gambling game you can think of. And, if there is a track that is not simulcast at Parx, nobody has ever heard of it.

The old track building has undergone a second makeover in a decade. New barns are regularly being finished on the backstretch. If you have not been there in a while, the place really is unrecognizable.

On Sept, 22, the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby will share top billing with the $1 million Cotillion, the first Grade 1 in Pennsylvania history.

This year’s best 3-year-old filly Questing will face last year’s top 2-year-old filly, My Miss Aurelia, in the Cotillion. It will be a small, but very select field.

The Pa. Derby will settle the Travers dead heat between Alpha and Golden Ticket. And they won’t be alone. The starting gate should be full or nearly full for a race which has been positioned to attract horses from the Travers and serve as a final Breeders’ Cup prep for 3-year-olds.

The $300,000 Gallant Bob, which will open the stakes portion of the card, will feature some of America’s best 3- year-old sprinters, including perhaps Trinniberg, Currency Swap, and Fort Loudon.

The three stakes races will be seen on a live 90-minute television show on a local CBS affiliate.

The racing office hopes to put on a card with $3 million in total purses.

There really will be nothing to compare the day to in the history of racing in the commonwealth because there has never been anything remotely like it.

The card will be the culmination of a month the track has decided to make its own, starting with a Labor Day card that featured three stakes with $900,000 in purses and another win by Ben’s Cat in the Turf Monster, the best grass sprint this side of the BC Turf Sprint itself.

Last Saturday was “Pa.-bred Day at the Races” with an entire card of Pennsylvania-breds, including five stakes worth $400,000. With all the slot money flowing into purses and the breeding fund, Pennsylvania-breds have suddenly become desirable and it shows in the foal numbers of the one state that has had consistently larger foal crops every year, even as the national foal crop continues to decline.

This Saturday is Owners’ Day, featuring the $250,000 PTHA President’s Cup.

So, if you are counting, that is nearly $4 million in stakes purses over four racing cards in 23 days, something very un-Pha like.

The day-to-day Parx programs are better, but not New York, Southern California, or the Keeneland/Churchill version of Kentucky, or even close.

But that really isn’t the point. If you have been here as long as I have, a day like Sept. 22 is as hard to imagine as a Pa.-bred horse like Smarty Jones.

It was Smarty Jones and that memorable spring of 2004 that then Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell credited with giving the slots bill the momentum it needed to pass that July. And now, eight years later, here we are with two $1 million races that will attract some of America’s best jockeys and trainers and make the old/new track just north of the Philadelphia city line the center of American racing for a day.