Derby Suddenly Finding Winners In Its ol' Pennsylvania Home

Friday, May 4th 2007, 7:13 am
By: News On 6

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ Barbaro's owners will get another chance to relive his Kentucky Derby win just a few furlongs from the Churchill Downs track where the strapping bay colt wore the roses.

Every half hour, Barbaro wins big again. Only this time, it's replayed on a 360-degree, high-definition oval screen in the Kentucky Derby Museum. The video is part of an exhibit honoring the previous year's winner.

Roy and Gretchen Jackson will be back in town this weekend and hope to watch Barbaro in his finest 2 minutes.

``Obviously there will be some tears in the eyes,'' Gretchen Jackson said Thursday from her farm in West Grove, Pa. ``It was certainly one of the best days of my life.''

But Barbaro wasn't the first Pennsylvania horse to captivate the Derby, and he might not be the last.

On Saturday, Hard Spun and Great Hunter will fly the Keystone State flag, trying to follow on the successful heels of Barbaro, Afleet Alex and Smarty Jones. Those horses' gritty roots or inspiring stories firmly put the state in the winner's circle of the last three Triple Crown runs.

Forget the ol' Kentucky home. It seems the place to find a winner these days is in Pennsylvania.

``It's just going to get better,'' said Larry Jones, who trains Hard Spun.

The last four years have been a boon to a Mid-Atlantic region never known as a major player on the Triple Crown scene. Maybe cheesesteaks will be washed down by mint juleps this weekend at the Churchill Downs concession stands.

Smarty Jones won the Derby and Preakness in 2004; Afleet Alex took the Preakness and Belmont in '05; and Barbaro won the Derby before his horrifying breakdown in the Preakness. He was euthanized in January.

All three had Philadelphia owners. Afleet Alex and Barbaro won their first races at Delaware Park. Smarty Jones was stabled at Philadelphia Park.

Great Hunter is owned by Phillip F.N. Fanning, who lives on Ivy Dell Farm outside of Coatsville, Pa., and the Rick Porter-owned Hard Spun was originally under the care of Smarty Jones trainer John Servis. Both are Pennsylvania-bred.

Who knew a horse would bring home the championships Philly sports fans have waited nearly 25 years for? Or that the champs would wind up drinking out of a backstretch trough instead of taking a swig out of the Stanley Cup?

``I think it's a pendulum and it's just swung into our area right now,'' Gretchen Jackson said. ``It'll be somewhere else in another five years. But it is peculiar.

``If Hard Spun wins,'' she added, ``that would be something else.''

Perhaps, but the cash generated from slot machines at Keystone State racetracks should help produce even more contenders for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

Delaware Park has been able to offer larger purses, upgrade facilities and amenities for fans. Philadelphia Park, which drew national attention with their Smarty Parties, has boosted purses, too, with the addition of the slot machines in December.

``That area has a good breeding program and good incentives, especially with Philadelphia Park and all of Pennsylvania now having slots,'' Jones said. ``They're putting money into the programs, and money gets you better horses.''

But that only helps the foals born now. It doesn't explain Smarty and the gang.

``We've got a lot of places where you can race and train, but why they all came out of there, I don't have an answer,'' Porter said.

No one has a better answer, but most Pennsylvania horsemen are content to go along for the ride.

Servis missed out on a chance to return to the Derby with Hard Spun after he and Porter ended their nearly 15-year professional relationship. That's how the horse landed in Jones' barn.

``Maybe I would have been bitter if it hadn't been for Smarty,'' said Servis, who won his 1,000th career race earlier this week. ``But the fact I've been there and done it, no, not at all.''

Servis has a couple of sentimental rooting interests in the Derby besides Hard Spun. Jockey Stewart Elliott is the first member of Team Smarty to return to the Derby, this time aboard Teuflesberg. And Servis trained Great Hunter's mother, Zenith.

Like Elvis or The Beatles, Smarty Jones and Barbaro only surged in popularity once their careers ended.

Nearly 500 fans turned out Wednesday to the breeding farm where a retired Smarty Jones stands stud. Another 600 fans turned out for Barbaro's birthday party at Delaware Park last Sunday. They all wanted to rekindle some memories of the Triple Crown races that jolted the sport.

The Jacksons were friends with Smarty Jones' owners, Roy and Pat Chapman, and have stayed in touch with Pat after Roy's death. The Chapmans became media darlings in the summer of '04 with Smarty's win, and the amazing backstory of how the colt nearly died after slamming his head on an iron bar. Throughout Smarty's run, the Jacksons watched and wondered if their turn would ever come.

``I just wished it had been me,'' Gretchen Jackson said. ``I didn't think it would be me.''