08/26/2003 11:00PM

Team Toccet holding up their end


PHILADELPHIA - It was just too perfect. An owner was calling out a trainer who was not his own. A race that was just a race was about to become an event. And it was all going to happen at Philadelphia Park, not exactly the center of the racing universe.

Alas, horse racing intervened. Stuff happened. And the 2003 Pennsylvania Derby on Labor Day ends up as the event that could have been.

Philadelphia Park management sensed it had something a few weeks ago. It raised the purse from $500,000 to $750,000 to try to make it special. It was the right move.

Then Empire Maker got sick. Then Peace Rules, who was set to run in the Pennsylvania Derby as a result of the purse increase, substituted for his stablemate Empire Maker in the Travers. And just like that most of the fun went out of the Pennsylvania Derby.

Toccet made his first start of the year on Aug. 19 at Philadelphia Park. Before and after the race, Toccet's owner, Dan Borislow, wanted to talk about Empire Maker and Peace Rules.

He dismissed Peace Rules as competition in the Pennsylvania Derby, saying he would bet Peace Rules's Bobby Frankel the purse, horse for horse. It was Empire Maker that Borislow really wanted Toccet to race against. Frankel, who can trash talk with the best, would have loved the buildup to the Pa. Derby. Sadly, we will never know how much fun it might have been.

Toccet will be at Philadelphia Park Monday. So will Dynever, who ran a strong second to Soto in the West Virginia Derby. It might turn out to be a terrific race, but it could have been epic.

Really, there simply is not enough trash talk in horse racing. Almost all of it occurs in the grandstand among the players. That's where all the geniuses let everybody know how smart they are.

Owners and trainers generally are a far more conservative lot. Michael Dickinson might be training the best 3-year-old in America, Soto. He would love to race Soto in the Pa. Derby, which is run a little more than an hour from his Maryland farm. But he wants the horse to have more time between races, so he will wait for the Super Derby.

Borislow and his trainer, John Scanlan, prefer not to wait. They proved that last fall when Toccet kept racing after almost all of his contemporaries were waiting for 2003.

Bone remodeling kept Toccet out of the preps and the Triple Crown races. Regular jockey Jorge Chavez thinks Toccet would have won the Triple Crown. Borislow figures his horse is Seabiscuit. Or better. Scanlan dismissed Peace Rules after Toccet won his prep race at Philadelphia Park.

Just imagine how much fun this group would have been at Churchill Downs. Or at Philadelphia Park, if Frankel were involved.

So how good is Toccet, exactly? He earned a 102 Beyer Speed Figure in his return. The colt won by less than a length, but it was a measured length. Owner, trainer, and jockey agreed that Toccet got a little tired.

Given that the horse was rushed to get ready and had been back in serious training for only six weeks, it was a more than respectable effort. Even the confident Borislow and Scanlan said they could not be certain Toccet would be at his absolute best for the Pa. Derby. Thirteen days is like a minute in top-class stakes racing these days. And when it is the second race after a long layoff like Monday's race will be for Toccet, it is even more problematic.

One thing is unquestioned. Toccet is a colt with amazing talent. If he can beat Dynever, it would be a giant step forward for connections that truly expect their horse to be running with the best horses in training over the next two months.

And if that does happen, be ready to have some fun.