Jan. 26, 2011
Yesterday a close friend sent a list of the past 33 Horse-of-the-Year winner, asking for them to be ranked. I was reminded of the statements made during the most recent Horse-of-the-Year squabbling, that it would be a shame for Zenyatta to be denied a Horse-of-the-Year title, given all that she has meant to the sport. I admit to agreeing to that philosophy.
What strikes me is that in the list of the past 33 winners of the award are a number of horses which will only be a blip on the history of racing in North America and I feel for some of the worthy ones from past years who were defeated by the very weak winners.
Here at Oaklawn, where we carried a chip on our shoulders for a long time in the face of the "elite" tracks of America, those which have run over our track have, to our way of thinking, largely been overlooked in post-season honors. It came as something of a shock, albeit a pleasant one, when Oaklawn and the Cella family were extended an Eclipse Award following the centennial 2004 season. For me personally, going to the Eclipse Award ceremony ranks among my fondest memories.
But when I look at the names of the Horse-of-the-Year winners, I see some which raced at Oaklawn and which probably didn't do a good job of earning that title. The three which caught my attention foremost were Black Tie Affair, Criminal Type and Favorite Trick. Black Tie Affair was a non-threatening third in the 1991 Razorback Handicap, behind a couple of forgotten runners, Bedeviled and Din's Dancer. He was awarded the 1991 Horse-of-the-Year award. He succeeded Criminal Type, who had raced an undistinguished fourth place finish in the 1990 Oaklawn Handicap behind the likes of Opening Verse, De Roche and Silver Survivor. Both of those two became champions after they raced at Oaklawn.
Favorite Trick, on the other hand, came to Oaklawn in 1998 as the first two-year-old to be Horse-of-the-Year since Secretariat, 26 years earlier. Favorite Trick was undefeated when he entered the Oaklawn starting gate for the Arkansas Derby, but could do no better than third behind one pretty good horse, Victory Gallop (he later snatched the Triple Crown away from Real Quiet in the final jump of the Belmont Stakes) and one not-so-memorable horse, Hanuman Highway. Favorite Trick failed to sustain his greatness from that point.
Yet, while we were upset about a lack of respect, Oaklawn was proud of one older runner, who was solid, Cigar. His win in the 1995 Oaklawn Handicap was heralded as the Race-of-the-Year on the ESPN network and his contuining great performances saved him a place among the greats of the 20th century. Add to his name those of two ladies, Lady's Secret (1986) and Azeri (2002), who also ranked among the very best of the century and came by their titles honestly.
Azeri will always be something special to Oaklawn fans. Following her title in 2002, she returned to Oaklawn in 2003 and won one of the greatest performances in my 37 years at this track, catching the talented Take Charge Lady in the final jump. The picture of the finish is, in my not so humble opinion, is the greatest ever taken of horses at the finish. They are totally in unison, all four legs off the ground and each leg in the same position. Their ears are pointed in the same direction and they were both giving the 100% we're used to seeing from great horses. For some crazy reason that picture did not win at Eclipse Award. There are always injustices in the Eclipse world and that was one. But I have a mousepad with that picture on it and I still marvel at the brilliance of the photography.
Now, since the centennial year, the list of great Oaklawn runners has been terrific. Memories in racing are short and rarely do the voters remember what happened back in January, February, March and April when they make decisions in November and December. But Smarty Jones, Instant Racing and Charles Cella all happened to come together at the same moment in that year, 2004, and changed the status of Oaklawn, hopefully forever.
Ironically, on the day I am writing this, something called the "Bleacher Report" on the Internet calls Oaklawn the Best Meet (Excluding Breeders' Cup races) in 2010. It cites the trifecta of Lookin At Lucky, Blind Luck and Zenyatta, along with the efforts of Charles Cella to get Zenyatta and 2009 Horse-of-the-Year, Rachel Alexandra (a multiple Oaklawn stakes winner as a 3-year-old) together in the "Battle of the Ages". How times have changed. There are no more chips on shoulders around here. The horses racing at Oaklawn in this era are more than mere blips on racing history. The respect lacking in earlier times is now present and Arkansans are proud.
Charles Cella has been the moving force through this entire time. He wanted to have "the best damned racetrack in America." With his two Eclipse Awards (he also got one for racing the 1995 champion turf horse, Northern Spur) and a lot of momentum, he might have reached his dream. Oaklawn hasn't always had the best or earned the title. It's been a long time coming and it's taken a big-time dedicated team effort. But that's how it has happened. And, like Zenyatta, it would be a shame to deny him that moment. That, as Paul Harvey used to say, is the rest of the story.