Feb. 13, 2011
We're baaaaaack!! Oaklawn is back in action and Saturday was a reminder of just what a spectacular place this is for racing. With the sunshine and the Ouachita Mountains as a backdrop, over 17,000 filed into the gates, took on a full 10-race card over a racing strip which was clearly not fast and, in spite of the unpredictable nature of the races, enjoyed a day full of smiles, meeting new friends and saying hello to their old friend, Oaklawn, once again.
Oaklawn audiences are something special in racing. They can only enjoy sunshine on the apron of the grandstand until the middle of the card, since the sun ducks behind the grandstand midway through the day. But the temperatures were so much warmer than most had endured over the past two weeks, that they stayed outside, enjoyed seeing the animals run and kept a pleasant disposition throughout the day. When you rode with some of them on the elevator after the races, you know they weren't picking winners, but didn't seem to mind.
Cabin fever had been cured and nowhere better than at Oaklawn, where even if you don't pick a winner, the corned beef or reuben sandwiches make the afternoon worthwhile.
It will take a while for the track to pack down to the point where it is producing the kinds of running times that good horses are expected to run. But, in the meantime, it was fun to see such beautiful animals running safely over the track which has been so professionally handled by Steve Breckling. In tough times there are some tough decisions to be made. That was true when racing was cancelled on Friday. The result, however, was that the races encountered no problems over the surface on Saturday and the spirit for the remainder of the season was buoyed by the announcement that purses would be increased and an extra day of racing would be added on Wednesday, April 13, during Racing Festival of the South week. Tourists love to be here for that week. An extra day of top-class racing at that time in April is something to be celebrated and Arkansans know how to do that.
Those of us in the racing business understand that there is no attention paid to the local three-year-old class in national rankings until the graded Southwest Stakes takes place. Even then there are plenty of doubters. They have already seen a dozen or so preps for the Triple Crown at other tracks from coast-to-coast and the memories are short. This week the big name is Brethren, who was an impressive winner of the Sam Davis at Tampa Bay. Next week it will be another, maybe even the Southwest winner. Soon Uncle Mo will swing into action and there will be more opportunities to separate the men from the boys in both Louisiana and California.
By the time the Rebel is run in March, it will be soon enough to make some real judgements about that division. That is normally the time when some of the runners from the Oaklawn stable area can be seen in the rankings. Eager Arkansas racing fans anticipate the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 16, since it has produced so many Triple Crown factors in recent years. Last year Brethren's brother, Super Saver, finished second in the Arkansas Derby, then won the Kentucky Derby. Fans here would love to see his brother, Brethren, run here.
But the fact is that running second in the Arkansas Derby has three times produced the Kentucky Derby winner. Both Lil E. Tee and Grindstone did the same thing. There obviously is no shame in finishing second in the Arkansas Derby. But Arkansas Derby winners like Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Curlin and others have also gone on not only to success in the Kentucky Derby, but in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, proving once again that the early Triple Crown prognosticators had better not ignore what's about to start at Oaklawn on February 21, when the local series of three-year-old preps begins.
March Madness around this part of the country is based in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and the horses running at Oaklawn. We're just happy to say "We're baaaaaaack!!"