Feb. 28, 2011
Since so many people seemed engaged in the annual Oscars Awards presentations on Sunday night, I thought I'd come up with my own set of the first half of the Oaklawn season Oscars to see how well they hold up as we head into the March and April segments of the season.
Of course, it isn't completely fair to compare the first and second halves of the Oaklawn season, since the first half is defined by the Racing Festival of the Snow and the second by the Racing Festival of the South. Pursewise, of course, much changes in the second half, not to mention that trainers from other parts of the country now see that there is something approaching dependable weather in Arkansas, which makes a journey there more predictable.
Nevertheless, there is something magical about the first part of the season which I miss when the big names start to come in and some of the lesser names, but just as dedicated, horsemen get to have their moments in the sun.
So I go on with the show.
Best Riding Performances: A tie between Alex Birzer and Cliff Berry. Both managed to notch four-baggers as the month of February wound down. For Birzer it was all the more remarkable, since this under-appreciated rider rarely gets to ride for the more heralded outfits, yet continues to win races in good numbers here. For Berry Sunday's four-bagger included the final pick-three and displayed both his versatility, winning from both on the pace and off, and his courageous style, sticking All About Allie's frame, ala Calvin Borel, between his main rival, Explosive Disco, and the rail to get the perfect spot to explode to her win in the Rainbow Miss.
Most Enjoyable Moment: Watching apprentice Jake Radosevich win two races the day after a New York Times story about the young rider taking up the riding challenge following the death of his brother Joshua in a race at Beulah Park. The entire Radosevich family has to take great pleasure in seeing the engaging young man succeed under the circumstances.
Biggest Surprises: Trainers Joe Martin and Jack Frost winning their first Oaklawn stakes races. Both have been living the life of claiming trainers and doing the long van drives and overnight shipping which marks the downside of the hard work of the racing game. First Joe won the Spring Fever with Stephanie Got Even. Good news probably came for Martin later when he was able to sell the four-year-old Stephen Got Even filly for a six-figure amount and allow himself to have the finances to keep going in this tough business. For Frost the winner of the Spring Fever with the filly Salty Wave, it made the meet for both him and his 18-year-old rider, Ricardo Santana, Jr.
The Comeback Award: To trainer David Whited. A great and successful jockey, whose career spanned thousands of wins, including my fist Arkansas Derby in 1975 with Promised City, Whited settled, as do many retiring racetrackers, here in Hot Springs. But, after years of getting up early it wasn't in the cards for Whited to rest on his laurels. Inspired by a good woman, Bonnie (Beans, to her friends), David bought a farm and set up a training center which he turned into the best in the area. From that he began to set up a string of horses to train and kept a few mares, many of which he bred to the stallion of his close friend, Leon Millsap, and the two set out to make Storm-and-a-Half the leading sire in the Southwest. Whited topped off his comeback by becoming one of just a few to win both stakes for Arkansas-bred three-year-olds in the same year. On Saturday he sadled Rattlesnake Holler, at odds of 32-1, to get up in the final strides and take the Rainbow for the colts and geldings. He then saddled the highly-regarded multiple stakes-winning filly All About Allie, a daughter of Storm-and-a-half, to explode to victory in the Rainbow Miss at odds of 3-2. Whited made his reputation by riding on the outside. Hence, his nickname, Wide-Ridin' Whited. The longshot, Rattlesnake Holler, used just that strategy to get his wins, wearing blinkers for the first time. All About Allie, ridden by Cliff Berry, looked more like Calvin Borel was in the saddle, hugging the rail all the way to victory. It was a great celebration for Whited, to win back-to-back Arkansas stakes at his home track and at this stage of his career. He's created a monster now. That's going to be a tough act to follow.
Now for the big awards.
Lifetime Achievement: D. Wayne Lukas wins easily. At 73-years of age, he looks more like 43 and has the energy to prove it. He may not make the national headlines as he once did, but he leads the pack of trainers through the first half of the Oaklawn season and still makes it his policy to honor a young person following each of his wins, by taking the young one to the winner's circle for the picture, then providing that youngster an autographed copy of that photo later in the day. He has won one stakes at the meet, the Pippin with Absinthe Minded, and may win more. With what he's done for the game the locals won't be displaying the disdain and jealousy which he seems to endure elsewhere in the country.
Best Performance by a Woman in a Supporting Role: Dr. Devi Jayaraman. She and her husband bring their horses to Oaklawn each year and rent a condo so that they can be present for each of their races. The Jayaraman family are many-time leading owners at Oaklawn and show a love and concern as owners which cannot be topped. Dr. Devi is always content to stand in the background, but the fact remains that she is knowledgable and concerned. When it comes to supporting her husband, she cannot be topped.
Best Performance by a Man in a Supporting Role: Jerry Hissam. The agent for Calvin Borel simply continues to plough new ground for his rider and is very much to thank for the continued success which Calvin has enjoyed. Of course Calvin gets credit, as he should, for his great work ethic and likeable style. But it wasn't Calvin who made those calls to people like Carl Nafzger, Chip Wooley and Todd Pletcher to pick up the mounts on Street Sense, Mind That Bird and Super Saver. And it wasn't Calvin who dealt with the volatile trainer Steve Asmussen in keeping Calvin with Horse-of-the-Year Rachel Alexander through her great successes. Like all agents, Jerry has had to take his share of verbal abuse over the years. But he not only supports Calvin, he takes a role in working for the Backstretch Ministry and other great causes, never needing to be signalled out for laurels. When it comes to devotion to all aspects of racing, Jerry is there.
Best Performance by a Woman in a Lead Role: Ingrid Mason. The young horsewoman has burst onto the Oaklawn scene in a great way over the past two seasons. Oaklawn has had its fair share of lady trainers over the years, but this former jockey made her mark last season by saddling 57% of her horses to hit the board. She is on track to do as well, but with many more starters this year. A former jockey, this talented young horsewoman is picking up clients quickly and likely to move from the ranks of "claiming" trainer to the trainer of good stakes horses in the very near future. Coming into this year her claim to fame was taking the $5,000 claimer Crook's Bodgit to victory in the $100,000 Star of Texas Stakes at Sam Houston Park. Through 26 starts on Sunday at Oaklawn she showed a record of four wins and ten seconds. One gets a feeling that there are a bunch more wins likely for her before the end of the meet.
Best Perfomance by a Man in a Lead Role: Randy Morse. The son of a horseman and horsewoman, Morse has been knocking on the door of greatness for some time. He has enjoyed great success throughout his career with claiming horses. Then he latched on to Jonesboro and he and owner, Mike Langford, turned that runner into the ultimate hard-knocking stakes horse, getting his earnings up over the $1 million mark the old-fashioned way, a little bit of a time. Although the horse sufffered a couple of injuries early in his career which might have put him out to pasture, it was the care of Morse which kept him going.
But this year Morse brought Kate's Main Man in to fill Jonesboro's number one stall and proceded to win the Essex Handicap with the front-runner, defeating the immensely popular Win Willy in doing so. Morse has no ego issues. He enjoys laughing about having to rent a top hat to run one of his claiming stars at Ascot in England. But better than that, he shot out to the lead early in the local training standings and did it with talent and not a lot of fanfare. By doing so, he has developed quite a following this year at Oaklawn.
Potential Star of the Year: Alternation. Winner of a key allowance race over Elite Alex and Commander early in the season, the Pin Oak color-bearer, under the guidance of Donnie K. Von Hemel, got everyone's attention with a dominant allowance win on Monday's undercard, beating up on some quality three and four-year-olds in doing so. Von Hemel's three-year-olds were supposedly headed by Caleb's Posse, winner of the Smarty Jones at Oaklawn earlier this year. But there is reason to believe that this late-developing Alternation might be in the number one stall before long.
Race-of-the-Half Season: The Southwest Stakes. Although Archarcharch finally showed us his much-heralded talents in getting there first, his performance wasn't so dominating that five or six out of that race aren't thinking Rebel Stakes on March 19 for a little revenge. Seven three-year-olds stretched across the track as the field turned for home. It was a cavalry charge from there. Horses like J P's Gusto, Elite Alex, Picko's Pride and Caleb's Posse had reason to think that they should have gone to the winner's circle from there.
There have been times in recent years when the Southwest has clearly separated the contenders from the pretenders in the pursuit of Arkansas Derby honors.
No so fast this time. Archarcharch can claim the number one ranking, but there are plenty of others ready to dethrone him on March 19 in the Rebel Stakes and that doesn't include a handful of shippers whose connections see the dollar signs in the $300,000 purse as something to grab at, given the aftermath of the Southwest.
Other races may have been closer or had more dramatic finishes in the first half of the year, but none figures to generate more excitement that our choice.
Feel free to have differences of opinion. That's what this sport is all about. You have mine, now. Let's see what the remainder of the meet has in store.