April 1, 2011
If you have some age on you, you can remember the Sears Catalog. It was a huge book of dreams--What you might be able to have through Sears stores that wasn't readily available as it is these days in outlets spread around the world.
On the wall in the Oaklawn Media Department is the Racing Festival of the South edition of the old Sears Catalog. It's a dream list of those possibile starters in the key races of the Racing Festival of the South. Read it and dream of what might happen here, starting in just over a week.
Until you see the manifest from the equine airlines which will bring in star horses from other parts of the country, you're allowed to dream.
Just a year ago we couldn't wait until Zenyatta walked off the plane, down the ramp and into the van which took her, with a police escort, to her stall in the stable area, which was her home for three of the most exciting days in Oaklawn's racing history. Racetrackers and fans who could get there, got as close as they could to that gentle giant of a Superstar and will never forget those moments. I was most moved by the racetrackers who came by the barn. They deal with horses 24 hours a day, but they were virtually magnetized to the barn which held the best racemare in racing.
There is no Zenyatta on the this year's list -- yet. Oaklawn has a history of making champions, not like last year when they could welcome one back. Instead there are a number of names on the Oaklawn version of the Sears Catalog which are likely to be in the breeding sheds by this time next year. Still we can enjoy pondering the matchups which might be occurring during the prestigious festival which is right around the corner.
It all starts on Saturday, April 9, with the Oaklawn Handicap. The mile-and-an-eighth race for older runners has a great history of champions, including one remarkable performance by the great Snow Chief in 1987. Those were vintage years for Mel Stute and his wonderful horse. In the Oaklawn Handicap he was taken on by a variety of challengers who ganged up on him throughout, but he repelled them all, getting the mile-and-an-eighth in 1:46 3/5, a record which still stands, in spite of a number of Eclipse Award winners who've had a very good chance to better it over the more than two decades during which it has been the standard.
Bob Baffert holds the big card this year in his runner Misremembered. He has engaged superjock Calvin Borel to ride, but he won't be unchallenged with name runners like Winslow Homer, Win Willy, Slewtheman and Theskyhasnolimit on the wish list. And should Colizeo and/or Drosselmeyer decided to pass on races this weekend, they could become major factors in the kickoff feature of the Racing Festival.
Three-year-old fillies will get the next bit of attention on Sunday, April 10. In what will likely become Oaklawn's next Grade 1 stakes race, the fillies will travel a mile-and-a-sixsteenth in the Fantasy Stakes. Many great performances have occurred since the Fantasy entered the Oaklawn stakes menu in 1973. In the past three years the winners have made great headlines in the racing game. Starting with the ill-fated Eight Belles in 2008, add Rachel Alexandra in 2009 and Blind Luck in 2010 and you have a threesome of which Oaklawn racing fans can be justly proud. Those who saw Joyful Victory in action at Oaklawn in the Honeybee, fully expect the gray filly to join the ranks, no matter what fillies are thrown against her either at Oaklawn or in the Kentucky Oaks. A good point can be made this week, when Summer Soiree, who ranked second in the Larry Jones barn, was sold as a major Kentucky Oaks prospect following a dominant win in Turfway's Bourbonette Stakes just last weekend. Larry Jones doesn't make too many mistakes when it comes to handling fillies and mares, and he was able to let Summer Soiree go, since he still has Joyful Victory in the barn.
Yet the most significant Fantasy of all may have occurred in 1984. Giving one of the few bad rides of his career, Laffit Pincay, Jr., rode Althea to a second place finish in the Fantasy that year. He lost to the sweet filly My Darling One from the barn of the great Cuban trainer Laz Barrera. Althea was angry when she got back to the barn and the connections, including owners Helen Alexander, Helen Groves and Dan Aykroyd and trainer D. Wayne Lukas, decided to wheel her right back in the Arkansas Derby one week later. Althea crushed a good field on Derby Day, including eventual Preakness winner Gate Dancer, by six-and-a-half lengths under new rider Patrick Valenzuela, setting the stakes record of 1:46 4/5, which still stands, 27 years later.
There won't be many to challenge Joyful Victory this year, but one who might is Arienza, the lightly-raced daughter of Giant's Causeway--Azeri, a pedigree which catches the eye of any of racing's afficianadoes. Arienza may be rushing into the lion's den with Joyful Victory, but so far Arienza has looked like the real deal and will make the Fantasy all the more exciting.
In the week following the Oaklawn Handicap will come both of Oaklawn's Grade 1 stakes races, the Apple Blossom and the Arkansas Derby. The catalog for those races has more possibilities than the Oaklawn Handicap and Fantasy put together. If you can get a bet down on whether there will be a 2011 Eclipse Award winner come out of those races, get down before they change their minds. We'll be talking alot about those races. I would talk about them now, but that would turn this blog into something like racing's version of Wealth Of Nations, the longest book I encountered during my educational experience.
Save to say we expect greatness out of The Factor, if he's on that jet into Hot Springs. And we expect the Apple Blossom to easily be the best filly and mare race until Breeders' Cup.
For the sake of fun, I hope some of you who read this will share with me your favorite Racing Festival of the South moments. I just love this time of the year. It's like sitting in the old days and leafing through the Sears catalog. Now there's a "book" I really miss. It was the thing of dreams in my youth. Now the thing of dreams is on the wall in the Media Office and it will have to do. It just doesn't have any pictures.