Jan. 22, 2011
These are the times when all good racing fans seem to block out various divisions of racing and concentrate on the three-year-olds.
Although we got off to a shaky start at Oaklawn, no thanks Mother Nature, the performances of some local three-year-olds begot visions of sugar plums in the forms of Derby trophies and roses began to occur in a number of heads. Once Churchill Downs announced the dates for the Kentucky Derby Future Pools, those who are looking for the bragging rites of nailing the Kentucky Derby winner were fired up and begin the Derby Trail focus.
As if to certify that the Derby Trail and Oaklawn are tied closely, our colleague, Gary West of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, did a column which indicated that Bob Baffert would be on hand when Oaklawn runs the $250,000 Southwest Stakes on Monday, February 21.
Suddenly each allowance race for the sophomore colts and gelding takes on more importance. The opening day (January 15) seventh race, a non-winners other than allowance race at one mile, finished in a three-way photo with Pin Oak's Alternation outgutting Elite Alex and Commander. Since the $100,000 Smarty Jones Stakes was fog-enshrouded on Monday and not many got to see the strong move put in by the winner, Caleb's Posse, the likelihood of a full field for the Southwest just grew exponentially.
Bob Baffert or not, there are going to be plenty of horses from this region whose owners are going to put a toe into the waters on that afternoon. Elite Alex is going to get a lot of play. Although finishing second in the January 15 allowance race, it didn't take a brain surgeon to see that he got off poorly and may have even grabbed a quarter at the start.
From my point of view, Elite Alex is a difficult horse to call. His name is so close to that of his brilliant sire, Afleet Alex, that you have to really focus not to make that mistake. But, even though he is owned in part by Chuck Zacney, owner of Afleet Alex, he races in different silks. I expect to see the Zacney green with a red cap on the jockey. That was Afleet Alex and we say him three times leading up to the Triple Crown. This colt runs in yellow and red. Announcers are supposed to forget what they say last time and concentrate on what the jockey is wearing today. I'm having trouble doing that with Elite Alex, since I was so high on his sire. If Afleet Alex could overcome the near disaster at the head of the stretch in the Preakness, then I'm of the opinion that I though Elite Alex could overcome his bad start. He'll get his chance in the Southwest, but it won't be easy.
On the other hand, I'm anxious to see what Donnie K. Von Hemel will choose to do. He won the allowance race with Pin Oak's Alternation in a virtual dream trip on the rail. But he also trains Caleb's Posse for owner-trainer Don McNeil. These two have opposite running styles and I know that puts Donnie in the unenviable position of being criticized for putting one horse in to set a legitimate pace while the closer benefits. We've seen owners who went ballistic both before and after such scenarios.
My favorite memory of that sort of occurrence goes back to the Apple Blossom Handicap of 1985. Defending champion Heatherten, who was always close, was there in the silks of her prominent owner John Franks, who would always come to Oaklawn for her races from his home in Shreveport, Louisiana. Trainer Billy Mott also saddled Sefa's Beauty for Michigan grocery magnate, Farid Sefa. The beautiful daughter of Lt. Stevens was ridden by Pat Day that afternoon and just got her nose down in front of her gray stablemate. When Mott was engagemed by Media representatives to come to the post-race press conference, Mott, fearing an immediate confrontation with Franks, took off running to the barn. Although Sefa's Beauty also reached millionaire status by the end of her career, I suspect Franks never forgot that finish and that day.
To salve Franks' memories one of his runners did capture Apple Blossom glory when Calvin Borel took another gray mare, Halo America, to a wire-to-wire win in the 1997 edition of the mile-and-a-sixteenth race. It was at a time when Borel was making a reputation and Halo America was a genuine local hero. Times have changed. Now it is Borel who, among other things, will be both inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and participate in the International Jockey Challenge in Dubai in the month of February, and Halo America has become a distant memory.
And for Borel the only thing that will get the attention of players across America is which three-year-old he'll be riding in the Kentucky Derby. Thanks to Street Sense, Mine That Bird and Super Saver, Calvin will have significant influence in the betting on the Kentucky Derby. Now if agent Jerry Hissam would only let us know in time for the Churchill Downs Future Book.