Feb. 2, 2011
Ouch!! Every week it seems Mother Nature is handing American racing a blow and putting many a horseman back in his training for the exciting races of the Spring. Oaklawn has only raced in January for the past 20 years, but primarily it is in the past decade has seen the early openings of racing at Oaklawn compromised by Mother Nature.
We, of course, aren't the only racing center to be victim of this horrible winter. I suspect that those progrosticators who are looking ahead to the Triple Crown races will place a big edge in the corner of those horses which have had the luxury of training in Florida. It hasn't always been this way. But the early choices are dominated by Florida-based runners over those in other locales.
We have been somewhat fortunate at Oaklawn in not losing critical racing days, although every training day lost is a big hurdle. The stakes schedule has been run, thanks to the delay of the Fifth Season from January 14 to January 16. We've already created some stars which have caught the attention of the local punters and some interesting developments have surfaced in the trainer and jockey areas. The most disappointing news is that jockeys Aaron Gryder and Jeremy Rose will either abandon Oaklawn for this year or be here for only a few occasions.
But trainer Alen Milligan and Randy Morse have caught plenty of early attention and two names expected to crush the local competition, Steve Asmusse and Jamie Ness, have been virtually nowhere to be found in the early action.
One who has not disappointed is Larry Jones. A media darling for the past five years, he has always shown special talent with fillies and mares. He won the 2003 Fantasy with Ruby's Reception, but really caught the local attention when he raced such key runners from Fox Hill Farm as the great filly Eight Belles and the colts, Old Fashioned and Hard Spun. After taking a sabbatical last year, he has hit the ground running again this time around. He needed to get over the tragic death of Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby and it wasn't enough for him to be the trainer of the Eclipse Award winner, Proud Spell.
The fact that he has retaken the reins of the stable from his wife, Cindy, suggests that he has worked through the hard times and now can get back into racing headlines. My guess is that he'll have a hard time avoiding them.
Fox Hill Farm happily reunited with Larry, sending him a group of fine runners, including the champion prospect, Havre de Grace. In additioon he now also is prepping the talented older runner Winslow Homer with the Oaklawn Handicap as a goal. In addition, he has also got a talented three-year-old filly named Joyful Victory in the barn. So who saw what happened on Sunday at Oaklawn?. With the distraction of the others in the stable, Jones saddled a filly called Summer Soiree in a non-winners of two allowance race. The daughter of War Front was coupled with a filly named Raised With Pride, which might have been favored over her stablemate had they been an uncoupled entry.
But suddenly Summer Soiree turned in one of the finest performances of the season, bolting to the lead under Gabriel Saez, and simply opened up from there, getting a half in :48, six furlongs in 1:12 4/5 and a mile in 1:38 2/5, en route to a mile-and-a-sixteenth in 1:45 and winning by a widening nine-and-three-quarters lengths. Oaklawn, which has seen the likes of Eight Belles, Rachel Alexandra and Blind Luck at the top of its three-year-old filly standings over the past three years, may be ready to stun the racing world with another late-developer with incredible ability. And the trainer is none other than Larry Jones.
There will be some interesting developments in the Jones barn in addition to what happens with the three-year-old fillies. This "ladies man" also is now handling not just Havre de Grace, the arch-rival of champion Blind Luck, but also will be saddling No Such Word, winner of the 2010 Honeybee, third in the Fantasy Stakes and winner of Aqueduct's Gazelle Stakes, the final Grade 1 event for older fillies and mares in New York last year. No Such Word won a couple of other nice races, like the Monmouth and Remington Park Oaks, so she comes by her talent honestly.
The Jones barn has been stocked with outstanding fillies and mares for a number of seasons at Oaklawn. He will draw some attention with his three-year-olds and the older guy, Winslow Homer, but you can count on his fillies and mares being at the heart of his stable's success Jones replacing his wife, Cindy, should mean little change in the barn. Cindy has been the "biggest horse in the barn" since he was lucky enough for her to say "yes" to his proposal many years ago.
But Cindy's talents aren't only in the barn. She also does equine massage when she's not working in the barn. Her most famous client was Zenyatta. When Zenyatta arrived at Oaklawn last spring and was walking the shedrow, Cindy, standing outside, made a little nose which Zenyatta recognized. The big mare backed up to Cindy to nuzzle the popular horsewoman. It seems that even Zenyatta, on her way to racing's Hall of Fame, has been touched by one of the famous Jones clan.