Feb. 10, 2011
Hey Leader, Strike up the Band. Melting away as fast as a young love, the snow from Wednesday's "Snowplosion" in Hot Springs was disappearing on Thursday even though the temperature wasn't really approaching the freezing mark. In case one was inclined to overlook the power of sunlight to make things happen, in this case it appears like the sun is on Oaklawn's payroll to allow racing to return on Friday.
The news that racing would take place at Oaklawn on Friday spread quicker than the news of the impending resignation of Mubarek in Egypt. Racing means so much in Hot Springs, it was clearly the talk of the town. Press, media and the many locals in the tourism business were quick to jump to attention and the 1:30 p.m. post time for Friday was an important moment in this town, which has had a discouraging share of wintery weather, delaying any rhythm to the "Fifth Season" in Arkansas.
Saturday's Martha Washington Stakes and Sunday's Essex Handicap will be getting the abundance of the attention, but the truth is that the corned beef sandwich sales might be the biggest winner. The races are important, but so are the foods and beverages when it comes to a patrons at Oaklawn. Being at Oaklawn is a happening. Most people think the big stars really come out during the Racing Festival of the South. Champions are developed in some of the early races, but the horses with the big reputations normally show up with the Daffodils in March and April.
It in developing champions, however, that the early part of the Oaklawn meet has taken on so much importance to the industry as a whole During the past decade Oaklawn has seen the maturation of such standout runners as Smarty Jones, Curlin, Eight Belles, Rachel Alexandra and others, who weren't big-time stars when they arrived, but became major names in racing after wintering at Oaklawn. They rarely had to deal with a winter like this one of 2011. When it comes to this weekend, it will be the Martha Washington on Saturday which could produce the sort of individual who could be a surprise when Eclipse Awards are handed out next January. It worked that way for Eight Belles, even though she was edged in the Eclipse Award voting by her stablemate, Proud Spell. In defeat and tragedy Eight Belles will be remembered in the racing game longer than Proud Spell. Let's hope that a filly running this weekend doesn't have to give the ultimate sacrifice to achieve greatness, ala Eight Belles.
But it will once again be trainer Larry Jones at the center of attention with a speedball filly named Summer Soiree. Jones trained Eight Belles when she won the second division of the of the 2008 Martha Washington by 13 1/2 lengths. It easily broke the winning margin record of Miss Seffens, when that mare, who eventually went to the breeding shed and foaled Breeders' Cup Juvenile Filly turf winner, More Than Real, zipped through six furlongs in a record-tying 1:09 1/5. Four years later the Martha Washington distance was changed to one mile. Miss Seffens won by nine lengths at six furlongs, but that was easily eclipsed by Eight Belles going eight panels.
When Rachel Alexandra won the Martha Washington in 2009, she set a stakes record, 1:36 2/5, but could only post a winning margin of eight lengths. Given the way she won the Kentucky Oaks by over 20 lengths, it's easy to imagine that Calvin Borel could have taken Rachel Alexandra to as dominating a win as Eight Belles scored. But it really didn't matter. They were both great and both the kind of champions which count among their early successes the spring series of races at Oaklawn Park.
The Martha Washington doesn't deserve to be a Grade I stakes. But the Fantasy does. The Martha Washington is building a terrific tradition, but the Fantasy (a race conveniently overlooked by the Graded Stakes Committee each year) is the beneficiary of the preps that the Martha Washington and Honeybee Stakes provide here each year. This series of races is setting standards in our industry it won't be long before horsemen see these races for their fillies to be as important as the strong series of races Oaklawn has built for the three-year-old colts and geldings. Of course last year's Fantasy winner, Blind Luck, also went on to win an Eclipse Award and was able to do it without a race over the track. But she had to work hard to the best of the locals at that time, Tidal Pool and No Such Word.
With stakes winners like Playgirl's Prospect and Mazucambera in the field, along with Summer Soiree, representing trainer Jones, there's the chance that a new name will appear in the national rankings. And given the success of recent years, whichever can separate herself from the rest in the Martha Washington has a great chance to be a big name in racing for a long time. If they don't etch their names in the history books, it will take something spectacular to show up in April to be better.
When racing swings into serious action in the spring at Oaklawn, important things begin to happen. The overture starts on Friday. The full symphony will likely play on Saturday and continue with the Essex on Sunday. The Essex could turn into a replay of one of the really epic races of the snow-shortened early stages of this meet, the Fifth Season Stakes. Win Willy, Stachys and Kate's Main Man staged a wonderful stretch battle. None of these are likely to be champions, but they provide a form of music to the ears of the racing afficianadoes.
It's time to strike up the band!!