01/21/2009 1:00AM

Old Fashioned keeping connections' hopes alive


PHILADELPHIA - What do Afleet Alex, Barbaro, Hard Spun, Eight Belles, and Old Fashioned have in common?

All five of them made their first start at Delaware Park.

The first four have a first, two seconds, and a third in the Kentucky Derby among them. Old Fashioned will begin his run at the Derby on Feb. 16 in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

So, what is up with Delaware Park and all these Derby horses? Obviously, slot machine cash has changed the caliber of stock at the track, but, really, what are the odds of all this?

Smarty Jones started this Mid-Atlantic trend in 2004. Now, Philadelphia Park has tons of slot machine cash as well, but no Derby contenders from the Pha since Smarty. Love the Pha, but the odds of another Smarty coming out of that backstretch are about as long as Smarty appearing in the first place.

What do Hard Spun, Eight Belles, and Old Fashioned have in common? Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farm and trainer Larry Jones are the connections behind all three.

Hard Spun and Eight Belles were second in the Derby. Given the immediate aftermath of last year's Derby, you would think the racing gods owe Porter and Jones a Derby.

This game and life, however, actually don't work that way. We all love to believe in omens. Reality often intervenes and the best horse wins.

Hard Spun and Eight Belles were just second best. Old Fashioned? To be determined.

"It looks like we got the goods right now," Porter said. "You know the deal. You've got the goods right now. You've got to stay healthy and be lucky and hope he keeps improving."

The colt is at the Fair Grounds, gearing up for his 3-year-old campaign.

That 12-1 when the colt won his maiden at Delaware is starting to look like the bargain of 2008. Coming from the back at six furlongs, Old Fashioned got up by a nose and earned an 85 Beyer.

That was the appetizer. Sent a mile in his next start, the colt ran out of the TV picture, winning by 15 1/2 lengths and getting a 96 Beyer Speed Figure. Then the Remsen at Aqueduct on Nov. 29 was a tour de force. Old Fashioned overwhelmed the field from the start, won by 7 1/4 lengths, and got a 100 Beyer.

Like Eight Belles, Old Fashioned is by Unbridled's Song. Porter bought the colt for $800,000.

"When they brought this horse out of the barn, I don't know what it was," Porter said. "He just had a look about him, as classic-looking a horse as you can get."

Porter decided, he said, that "we're going to take this one home." But he didn't expect to pay $800,000.

He wasn't going to hang in the bidding much longer.

"I'm surprised I went as far as I went," Porter said.

Now, he has a third chance at the Derby in three years.

"I'd like to go back, and I'd like to win it," Porter said. "Just getting there three times in a row would be a miracle."

I called Porter the day after the 2008 Derby. He wondered aloud if he wanted to stay in the game. Watching a wonderful filly like Eight Belles die on the clubhouse turn, the euphoria of a runner-up finish in the Derby to heartbreak a few hundred yards later, would do that to anyone. Porter has learned how to deal with the memories, good and bad.

"When I'm watching a race, I really don't worry about something bad happening," he said. "Even though that happened, somehow I am able to block that out of my mind. It's the kind of thing you never forget, but you've got to move on."

Having a colt like Old Fashioned in the barn makes moving on a bit easier. Our new president got elected because he represented hope, an emotion everybody on the track understands.

Hope is what keeps the backstretch going through the inevitable losses, injuries, mistakes, and even the deaths of the animals. Horse racing is a sport for the passionate and the dreamers.

It is also a sport for the patient. So much of it is waiting and imagining. Porter finds himself in that mode as he awaits Old Fashioned's race next month in Arkansas.

"You're waiting and you're waiting," Porter said. "And you hope you don't get a phone call early in the morning. The one that says Larry Jones, you don't even want to answer."

But it could be the trainer saying Old Fashioned just had a great work, telling the owner the Remsen was merely a preview. In this sport, anything can happen, even five consecutive Derby contenders from the beautiful track in Delaware, a state that, on Tuesday, reveled in seeing its first vice president, Joe Biden, take the oath of office in Washington.