The Real Racing Begins; Everybody Wins

Feb. 16, 2011

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There is a point in each race when jockeys begin to ask their horses and all the early stuff simply gets referenced as "the pace".  If the pace was slow, it's noted that the speed held.  If the pace was fast, watch out for the closers.
The pace makes the race and pretty much determines what's going to occur in the stretch.  The real racing begins at that point.

Maybe the same thing happens to racing seasons.  Because this weekend at Oaklawn the "real racing" begins and there will be many who will judge the success of the weekend on the "pace" of the season thus far.

Everyone in this part of the country knows how much of a punch in the gut Mother Nature laid on Arkansas.  Losing eight racing days in a season is unprecedented at Oaklawn.  Fighting off that sluggish pace, the comparative crowds and mutuel handle give reason to believe that a lively stretch run is in the offing.  This past weekend, just three days after a 6-7 inch snowfall, a blizzard by Hot Springs standards, hit the area, there were 17,131 on hand for racing, followed by another 7,145 on Sunday.  Those are pretty good numbers by any standards these days and make the prognostics for the remainder of the 2011 season at Oaklawn look promising.

Now we get to the weekend which matters.  For years track management has thought of this weekend as the real beginning of things.  For many years Oaklawn didn't open until the second or third week in February.  As a result comparative numbers from year-to-year were anything but an apples-to-apples judgment.  That all changes this weekend.

Reaching the kinds of numbers which have set this weekend apart at Oaklawn will first be the work of Mother Nature.  This has been a great week as the track prepares for significant numbers of fans and top-quality racing.  Judging by the numbers of the past few years, Oaklawn should see better than 60,000 fans pass through the turnstiles from Friday through Monday.  Of the four days Monday will be the biggest.  Even though some schools will be in session in order to make up for an overflow of snow days recently, Oaklawn can still reasonably expect a crowd in the 30,000 range, barring interference fromt the weather.

This time weather appears unlikely to make that kind of difference.  There is an outside chance for some light rain, but the draw of the national holiday, Presidents Day, along with the $250,000 Southwest Stakes, for three-year-old Triple Crown prospects at one mile and the $55,000 cash promotion and the recipe for a big day should make Hot Springs the capitol of racing in America for that day.

The Southwest Stakes, which will have the most lingering effect from the day, gives us a chance to put some proven commodities on the track and set the stage for bigger battles down the line.  Of itself the Southwest has not always been a spectacular provider of great horses.  It has been won by some very good ones, to be sure.  The roster of Southwest winners still includes champions like Smarty Jones, Smoke Glacken and Lawyer Ron.

But, to my mind, the greatest Southwest Stakes occurred in 1992 and, much like this weekend at Oaklawn, the pace made the race.  There were only six horses in the field and the least-regarded by many was named Big Sur and trained by some guy named Wayne Lukas.  Also in the field were a couple of local darlings named Lil E. Tee and Pine Bluff.  They carried the colors of Cal Partee and John Ed Anthony, a pair of Arkansans whose investment in racing had given national integrity to the Oaklawn programs.

While everyone else plotted out various strategies in the Southwest, Lukas told jockey David Guillory to go to the lead and go as fast as he could, as far as he could.  One mile after the gates sprung open Big Sur was two-and-a-half lengths ahead of Pine Bluff, withe Lil E. Tee running a disappointing third.  Pine Bluff would come back and win the Preakness, one race after Lil E. Tee upset the wonderhorse, Arazi, and others in the Kentucky Derby.  Big Sur was never to be heard from again on the national stage.  But his legacy is in his Southwest win.

That also started a feeling that the Southwest is a race only for speed horses.  A couple of pure speed horses like Rare Brick and Smoke Glacken had assisted in creating that issusion by their wins.  Smarty Jones went a long way to changing that idea.  Since 2004 runners like Greater Good, Lawyer Ron and Denis of Cork have all given big-time hopes to those coming from off the pace.

Last year Bob Baffert sent Conveyance into the fray and the speedy runner had the combination of speed and stamina to go to a wire-to-wire score over the likes of Dublin (Lukas, again) and Mission Impazible (Todd Pletcher).  Clearly the national names were involved and the renewed importance of this race as an important step on the road to the Triple Crown has resonated in the most significant barns in America.

This year J.P.'s Gusto was shipped from his trainer in California to a veteran middle American trainer to prepare for the Triple Crown by the Arkansas route.  That's a new one.  But maybe long overdue.

A year ago the excuse was that California horses needed to get away from the synthetic tracks to properly get ready for the big three races.  A parade of California-raced horses, Conveyance, Lookin At Lucky and Line of David, made their way to Oaklawn and dominated.  Line of David even beat the eventualy Kentucky Derby winner, Super Saver, in the Arkansas Derby.

This year J.P.'s Gusto will be the standard against which all the others will judge their progress.  There has not been a rush to come out to Oaklawn, where there's been more snow days recently than race days.  Locally-based horses like Caleb's Posse, Elite Alex, Alternation, Yankee Passion, Bluegrass Bull, Brickyard Fast and others will get to see if they belong.  They'll also get a chance to do it in front of a big crowd, getting used to the pressure which comes with that territory.

Running style shouldn't make a difference.  Traditionally there is no dominanat running style in stakes at Oaklawn.  There have been as many won on the front end as from behind.  One need only to look back to last year when Zenyatta swooped the field in the Apple Blossom Invitational field in her heralded style, while Line of David refused to quit on the front end of the Arkansas Derby one day later.

No, this Monday may not produce a Triple Crown race winner, but it should be a winner for Oaklawn.  The track has taken Mother Nature's best punch and is now geared up to present top quality racing in front of a large, appreciative audience.  The real racing begins.  Once again there willl be a sort of magic being at Oaklawn on Presidents Day.  When that happens, everybody wins.  

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