And They're Off!!!

Jan. 14, 2011

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Like everything else that happens to folks as they get older, it seems odd to think that, for me, this will mark the 37th opening day of racecalling at Oaklawn Park.

Opening day at Oaklawn is, I suppose, not all that different from opening night of a Broadway show or of a concert tour.  There will always be anxiety.  That is particularly so since I haven't called a race since the Horsemen's Park meet in July in Omaha.  When the field of ten starter-allowance runners go six furlongs in the first race I'll rediscover my rhythm.  When twelve come to the gate for the second race, it will occur to me that I have to forget the first ten and focus only on that set of twelve.  They are $10,000 claimers, most of which I've never seen before.  That will be the real test.

Every race announcer understands the challenge of doing this year after year.  Nothing special here.  Except that I've been doing this for a long time and people here expect me to reach a level to which they are accustomed.  I take it seriously.  I won't be out on the town tonight.  Early to bed and very early to rise to do Little Rock tv.  The day will fly by for me.  I hope it works well for you, too.

Meanwhile, most folks are waiting anxiously for Monday night's announcement of the selection of Horse-of-the-Year.  I am not embarrassed to admit that I am a big-time Zenyatta fan and will be rooting mightily for her on that evening.  Her impact on the lives of racing fans and non racing fans was incomparible.  I was around Secretariat a number of times.  I watched him race in person on five occasions, including the Kentucky Derby and the Canadian International at Woodbine.  Although he had tremendous fan support and respect from coast-to-coast, he never developed the connection with fans like Zenyatta.  Many in the backstretch at Oaklawn last spring had the moment when they could actually pet the giant mare and have it captured for a lifetime on camera.

Around here there is special feeling even now for Secretariat, since a homegrown young rider named Otto Thorwarth was selected to play Ron Turcotte in the movie about Big Red.  Otto's brother, Jimmy, is a mutuel clerk at Oaklawn.  With all the good reasons that some of our local folks would tend to favor Secretariat, it will be the lasting impressions of the 2008 and 2010 visits which Zenyatta made to Hot Springs which will stay in the minds of Oaklawn fans as the most significant.

I am honored to have had the chance to call her two wins in the Apple Blossom, although I feel the same about the great champion mare Azeri, who won the race three consecutive years, 2002-4 and scored what I think is the most spectacular win in my time at Oaklawn when she resolutely wore down Take Charge Lady to win in 2003.

Ironically, the next best finish in recent years at Oaklawn saw Take Charge Lady's trainer, Kenny McPeek, get nosed out again at the wire.  That happened in the 2010 Rebel when Lookin At Lucky caught Noble's Promise at the wire.

But those were races after the meet started.  Right now we have a stable area of potential stars and we won't see the bigger names of the sport until we've shot through the first few weeks.  Win Willy, in Sunday's Fifth Season, may be the most recognizable name to Oaklawn fans on opening weekend.  He scored a major upset here in 2009, defeating the very popular runner Old Fashioned.  There are full fields and a lot of excitement around the area as we get into action.

I hope I can share some of my enthusiasms with you through this blog and perhaps jog some memories for a number of you, while we creat some new memories for the 2011 meet.

I wish everyone frequent trips to the cashier's window.       

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