I LOVED A Little Warm in the Travers. The colt had not run a poor race in a year. Each race was a step forward, culminating with a dominant win in the Jim Dandy Stakes.

The colt's trainer, Tony Dutrow, an honest man in a sport filled with spin, loved the colt more than I did. He was convinced A Little Warm was sitting on the race of his life.

A Little Warm was 9-2 in the Aug. 28 Travers. Seemed like more than a fair price. I got involved.

A Little Warm ran fifth, beaten by 8 3/4 lengths. It was his worst race in a year.

When you are trying to play this game, self-examination is critical. Was I just wrong about A Little Warm? Or was I right and there was a reasonable explanation for what went wrong?

I still think I was right. On Travers Day at Saratoga, the main track favored horses that ran near the rail. A Little Warm was quite wide on both turns. And when it was time to run, the colt had no run left.

That A Little Warm had to run against the prevailing bias of the track is why I think he ran so poorly. It could be something else. Perhaps, the horse just hit the top of his form cycle and was starting to head the other way. Could have been other, less obvious reasons.

"I'm not looking for any excuses for A Little Warm," said Dutrow, ever the realist. "He's not a good enough horse to go out there and run the way he runs every time he runs. The Travers wasn't his day. He seems like he's very, very good now."

So the trainer never had any illusions. He always knew there were limits to A Little Warm's ability. I concur, but I do think, on his good day against the right field, this is a very formidable colt.

So I like A Little Warm in tomorrow's $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing.

Garrett Gomez will be in for the ride as regular rider John Velazquez committed to ride Morning Line when it appeared as if A Little Warm was not going to run. But when the race came up a bit weaker than expected, Dutrow decided to run.

"It didn't look like it came up a real million-dollar race so we thought we better be in it," Dutrow said.

The last race of a horse's form is always the most scrutinized and most emphasized. And that can be a mistake. If there is a rational explanation for why a horse ran so well or so poorly in that most recent race, a good player with that knowledge can benefit. Anything that puts you a step ahead of the crowd is a good thing. And, if you are going to have any chance in this game, you better not be with the crowd.

Am I as confident about A Little Warm as I was last month? No. Do I think the colt can beat these horses on his best day? Absolutely.

This seven-horse field, however, has some real quality. Morning-line favorite First Dude has not won since breaking his maiden on Jan. 30, but his last six races were in the Florida Derby, Blue Grass, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, Haskell Invitational and Travers, every one a Grade I. First Dude was third in four of the races and second in the Preakness.

Like First Dude, Exhi is fast. The colt is either on the lead or near it in all his races. Trained by the aggressive Todd Pletcher and starting from the rail, you have to think Exhi is going to go for the front. If First Dude and Exhi go too fast, that really could set it up for a horse like A Little Warm, whose best races are from right off the pace.

If not A Little Warm, perhaps Afleet Again, owned by three members of the Afleet Alex partnership and trained locally by Butch Reid. The Withers winner was fourth in the Travers, just ahead of A Little Warm. If they go really fast up top, it will really help this late runner.

The X-factor is Morning Line, trained by Nick Zito. The $700,000 yearling purchase has never been in a stakes race, but has flashed tremendous ability in his five lifetime starts.

Friend Or Foe was fourth in the Jim Dandy and well beaten in the Travers. The colt is a terror against New York breds, but would really have to improve to have a chance against this group.

Finally, there is Severe Weather. It is probably going to take a Beyer figure of 100 or so to win this race. Severe Weather's best main-track Beyer is 70, which computes at the Pa. Derby distance of a mile-and-an-eighth to about 17 lengths worth of difference. This $3,000 yearling purchase has been running at Penn National, the lovely track near Harrisburg, winning his first career race after 10 losses on June 9. The colt won his second race on June 24. Probably not going to win his third race on Sept. 25.

THE PENNSYLVANIA DERBY

TOMORROW, AT PARX RACING, 11TH RACE

Purse $1,000,000, 1 miles, Three-year-olds.

1 Exhi, jockey JJ Castellano, trainer Todd Pletcher; odds: 5-2

2 Severe Weather, jockey Rodrigo Madrigal, trainer Flint Stites; odds: 20-1

3 Afleet Again, jockey Cornelio Velasquez, trainer Butch Reid; odds: 12-1

4 A Little Warm, jockey Garrett Gomez, trainer Tony Dutrow; odds: 3-1

5 Morning Line, jockey John Velazquez, trainer Nick Zito; odds: 9-2

6 First Dude, jockey Robby Albarado, trainer Dale Romans; odds: 8-5

7 Friend Or Foe, jockey Alex Solis, trainer John Kimmel; odds: 12-1