09/07/2005 12:00AM

Non-starter causes pick-three angst

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PHILADELPHIA - There is just something about the pick three at Philadelphia Park on Pennsylvania Derby Day. Last year, it was just bizarre. This year, it has entered the world of eerie. It is either them or me. I think it's them.

In 2004, the track surface was tilted to favor speed and rail. That was so obvious midway through the card that I ended one sequence with a Love of Money single in the Pa. Derby.

I got through the first leg. Then, the fun started. The second leg was a dead heat. I had one of the numbers. Love of Money won easily in the third leg.

I assumed the pick three money would be distributed based on how much money was bet on each of the horses involved in the dead heat. Wrong. By Pennsylvania rule, it was split evenly. What?

In the 2004 case, I was actually the beneficiary. But the rule was still wrong.

Joe Wilson, Philadelphia Park's vice president of operations, remembered bringing the inequity to the attention of the Pennsylvania Racing Commission eight years ago. After last year's dead heat situation and resulting bad publicity, the commission finally acted. The rule was changed. The payoffs are now based on the amount of money bet on each combination, an interesting concept.

Which brings us to last Monday. Unlike last year, I did not have a strong opinion on any one horse. So I could not load up on a few combinations.

I did think the favorites in the Steve Van Buren Handicap and Pennsylvania Derby were vulnerable. I thought one of the two favorites in the Pennsylvania Oaks had to win. And who knows? I may have been right about that - if one of those favorites actually got into the gate.

I bet the pick three this way: 5x2x8, $80 for each $1 ticket.

The bettors made Ender's Sister the 6-5 favorite in the Van Buren. I thought she had a chance to win, but was way overbet. I used her and four others. It worked out perfectly when one of my five, 12-1 shot Annika Lass, circled the field to win by a half-length. Ender's Sister was seventh.

The Oaks looked like a two-horse race. Hide and Chic was odds-on. Private Gift was 7-5.

If either won, I would go into the Pa. Derby with 8 of the 12 numbers and a chance at a nice score - if the favored entry of Sun King and Indy Storm did not win and if one of the real longshots did win.

I was standing by the winner's circle when the Oaks horses came out of the gate. Track announcer Keith Jones paused as they ran those first 100 yards toward the finish line. Then, quizzically, he announced "They're off," and told everybody who already did not know it (including me) that Private Gift was still behind the gate.

Starter Rusty Downes, a 30-year track employee, simply did not see her or notice she was not in the gate. He made a mistake. On Tuesday, track officials suspended Downes for a week. It was human error. It has happened before at other racetracks. It is very rare, but not unprecedented.

Private Gift was declared a non-starter. The money bet on her was refunded - except the money in the pick three. Those who had her now got the post-time favorite.

I don't want to speak for anybody else, but I didn't want the post-time favorite. I already had the favorite. If I wanted the favorite twice, I would have bet it that way. I wanted and deserved a refund.

I wasn't expecting the written apology track CEO Hal Handel said he would send to Private Gift's co-owner, Will Farish. I don't know if Will had the pick three, but I am guessing he was not all that thrilled with the situation. Neither was I.

At the track, there is no crying and no apologies. Some enlightened states have rules that give the players a refund in that situation. Pennsylvania is not one of them.

You already know the rest of the story. Now second choice Amazing Buy, making her first start since April for the 9 percent trainer Jennifer Petersen, got loose on the lead. Favored Hide and Chic chased and could not catch her. I was out of the pick three.

I was now rooting for Sun King. I did not want to consider the other possible scenarios, the what ifs. Thankfully, I was wrong about Sun King. Instead of being vulnerable, he was dominant. The $2 pick three paid $929.60. My potential payoff obviously would have been considerably less.

Which does not make the Pennsylvania rule any less unfair. Please change it between now and the 2006 Pa. Derby, when I will try to test the Pennsylvania Derby Day pick three one more time.