April 9, 2011
This will be the 38th edition of the Racing Festival of the South and it occurs to me that the overwhelming great memories of Oaklawn racing for the past four decades can be traced to the dramatic moments of previous Racing Festivals.
I've participated in 37 of these Festivals and know that the real drama begins at the quarter pole of the stakes features every day. From that point on the huge crowds are so loud, they easily drowned out anything I might say. But the passion and excitement which we will share here is racing as it is meant to be and something that will pique excitement for next year immediately after the last race on Arkansas Derby Day, next Saturday, April 16.
Credit for the development of the Racing Festival idea goes back to a period before I got here, but I have always understood that it was the result of a conversation between Charles Cella, then Oaklawn Racing Secretary "Doc" Lavin and Spencer Drayton, head of the TRPB, the security arm of the TRA. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for that exchange. Whatever happened, the result has been the basis for some of the most exciting moments in Oaklawn racing history. It was a dream then. It is essential now and talked about in racing circles the world over.
We start with the Oaklawn Handicap on Saturday and the Fantasy Stakes on Sunday. The order of the races changes somewhat regularly, but the quality lingers on. Clearly the Dubai World Cup has impacted the availability of tracks to have the best of the older horses available for races like the Oaklawn Handicap and even, occasionally, at Santa Anita for what they affectionately call the "Big 'Cap".
As a result the chances of improving the graded status of the Oaklawn Handicap is limited at this point. However Sunday's Fantasy is a different animal altogether. With the last three winners being Eight Belles, Rachel Alexandra and Blind Luck, I'm somewhat surprised it has been looked over as a Grade 1 by the Graded Stakes Committee. But the presence of Joyful Victory and Arienza in Sunday's race will help it in the future. I'm a big fan of Joyful Victory since jockey Mike Smith made her look like a mini-Zenyatta in taking the Honeybee by looping rivals and drawing off in Zenyatta-like fashion. Arienza, on other hand, has genetically picked up the abilities of her champion sire and dam, Giant's Causeway and Azeri. Either or both are, in my opinion, the equal of any three-year-old fillies in America. It was tough to come up with competition for them in the Fantasy. We'll get a better price when one, the other or both run in the Kentucky Oaks on May 6.
Next week the Festival will resume on Wednesday and the most important action of the day will be the post position draws for the Apple Blossom Handicap, to be raced on Friday, April 15, and the Arkansas Derby on Saturday, April 16, The draw for the Derby will be telecast on the Oaklawn Simulcast Network and available for the public who show up for the races on Wednesday. It certainly worked out conveniently for Oaklawn to add Wednesday to the racing schedule in the aftermath of losing eight days to bad weather earlier in the meet.
Both the Apple Blossom and Derby will draw larger fields than we'll see for the Oaklawn Handicap and Fantasy Stakes this weekend and I feel comfortable that we'll see at least one champion and as many as three come out of this year's Festival. We don't have Zenyatta as the main attraction this year, but we'll have great quality and the enthusiasm of an army of Arkansas racing fans which appreciate quality when they see it and all the other surroundings of Oaklawn which have made it the state's top tourist attraction for the past half-century.
Get ready for fun and drama. Get focused on the quarter pole. That's where much of the most memorable action will take place.
Here they come into the stretch!!!