08/27/2002 11:00PM

The Pha's weekend to shine


PHILADELPHIA - Whenever I tell my friends they really do need to see the new Philadelphia Park, they just sort of smile condescendingly as if to say, "Please, it's the Pha." Given the track's pedestrian history, the reaction is perfectly understandable.

The track, located between the Pennsylvania Turnpike and I-95, is just over the Philadelphia city line in Bucks County. There are acres of parking lots and a building that looks very much like an elongated box.

If you haven't been there in years, you will be dazzled when you step inside to see the first and second floors. It is state-of-the-art. It is how a racetrack is supposed to look in the age of simulcasting. It is all about the players. Hang at the "Pha" these days and you really do feel like gambling.

This weekend, there will be lots of gambling. And the simulcasts won't be the centerpiece. The "Pha'' is going big time during the most significant weekend in track history.

Saturday, the fourth Claiming Crown Championships come to the track after a three-year run at Canterbury Park. Six races with total purse money of $550,000 will feature 53 claiming horses.

Monday, the $500,000 Pennsylvania Derby will include Kentucky Derby favorite Harlan's Holiday, Ohio Derby winner Magic Weisner, Wiseman's Ferry (going for his third derby win), and Essence of Dubai, the strongest group of horses ever to appear for the commonwealth's most important race.

Since the calendar turned to 2000, Scott Lake has won nearly 1,000 races, more at Philadelphia Park than anywhere. He is the only trainer to have won more than one Claiming Crown race. He has won five.

"That's my Breeders' Cup,'' Lake said. "Unless I have a horse in the Breeders' Cup, I don't want to go. I'd rather sit at home and watch it on TV.''

Lake has four horses in three races of his Breeders' Cup. It's likely Final Dispersal will be favored in the $75,000 Glass Slipper. Ruskin will be among the favorites in the $50,000 Iron Horse.

Racing gets almost no play on television in the Philadelphia area. Lake has been a featured guest on two sports show this week. The Claiming Crown and the Pennsylvania Derby are not the Eagles, but they are getting noticed.

The everyday racing at Philadelphia Park is about as boring as it has ever been. That could change soon.

It's likely that slot machines at the state's racetracks could become a reality. If Democrat Ed Rendell is elected governor in November (he's a solid favorite), slots are almost a lock.

If slots do happen, Philadelphia Park is positioned to take advantage of them. In fact, if you walk into the place these days, you might just assume slots have to be somewhere around the next bend.

Philadelphia Park will be dealing out more than $1 million in stakes purses over the long weekend. Fittingly, just over half of that will be going to the claiming horses. Regardless of how it is dressed up, Philadelphia Park is a claiming-horse track. Which is why it is a terrific setting for the Claiming Crown.

The players will understand these races. It is what they know.

The "Pha'' is not Saratoga or Del Mar. Slots or not, that won't ever change. But the "Box in Bensalem'' really has changed. It looks like a serious racetrack. And, for one weekend at least, it will be.