A Salute on Belmont Week

June 10, 2011

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One of the most enjoyable aspects of Oaklawn racing has occurred since Charles Cella established the $5 million Centennial bonus in 2004.  The purse of the Arkansas Derby was raised to $1 million and in fairly short time the race was returned to Grade 1 status.  We've had a great time with the Arkansas Derby since that year and it has attained the status which the Apple Blossom Handicap reached in the last decade.  It is a "key" race for the runners in that division.

This year the Arkansas Derby accomplished something which had been lacking in recent years.  It was won by the "home" folks, Van and Bob Yagos of Jacksonville, Arkansas purchased Archarcharch on the advice of trainer "Jinks" Fires and had the joy of seeing him win the big race in front of the home folks here at Oaklawn.  Even though he suffered injury at the Kentucky Derby, the Yagos family, Fires and  his staff had the time of their life in the leadup to the Kentucky Derby, leaving a plethora of memories which will always be front and center whenever the racing subject surfaces.

On Thursday of this week the Yagos family celebrated their win with friends in their hometown.  On a beautiful early evening they were feted by the town Mayor, the local State Representative and by the Chairman of the Arkansas State Racing Commission.  Chairman Cecil Alexander pointed out the significance of an Arkansas owner winning the Arkansas Derby.  There was a time when two dominant Arkansans were able to be competitive and win that race.  Those two, John Ed Anthony of the Loblolly Stable and W. Cal Partee, honored Arkansans with the performances of such great runners as Temperence Hill, Demons Begone and Lil E. Tee.

Archarcharch has been sold and will stand his first season at stud during 2012 at Spendthrift Farm in Lexington, Kentucky.  Spendthrift is one of the classic stud farms in Lexington.  It was created by the great Leslie Combs and was the home of many of the greatest stallions of the past century.  Majestic Prince was foaled there and returned to stud.  Other great names in American racing, such as Seattle Slew and Affirmed called Spendthrift their home.

With Archarcharch Spendthrift now has invested in two consecurive Arkansas Derby winners for the stud roster.  2010 Arkansas Derby winner Line of David, who topped eventual Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver here at Oaklawn, is just completing his first year at stud at Spendthrift.  Going to a top farm such as Spendthrift would make it likely that the offspring of these two past Arkansas Derby winners will have a great chance to make their marks in the stallion ranks as they did over the oval here at Oaklawn.

Part of the good news of the evening was that the Yagos family is committed to continued action at sales and with trainer Fires at the helm.  Fires and his family have been dedicated to racing.  His brother, Earlie, has already been inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame.  While others of the most famous family ever in Riverdale, Arkansas, may have made fewer headlines in the sport of racing, none game more of themselves than brother Jinks and another, Mannie, who broke many of the Fires trainees and still can handle a tough horse at an advancing age.

As the only member of the Oaklawn family able to enjoy the gathering (the remainder enjoying the company picnic at the track infield), it was a joy to see this group and all their friends celebrating racing even though the live season ended nearly two months ago and won't begin again until January.

While they celebrate Archarcharch, everyone is interested in the prospect for Nehro in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.  They all know that Nehro finished with a flourish in the Arkansas Derby and was the only runner to seriously threaten that great moment.  Now they, and all Oaklawn fans, wish Nehro the best of luck at the difficult mile-and-a-half distance of Saturday's Belmont Stakes.  

One thing we've determined is that it is impossible to predict how horses will handle the mile-and-a-half.  Two great modern performances stick in my mind.  Of course there was the effort by Smarty Jones in pursuit of the Triple Crown when Birdstone racn him down in the final sixteenth of a mile.  Then there was the brilliant win by Afleet Alex just one year later.  Personally those two performances were the worst and best of times.  I was devastated by the Smarty Jones loss, but I was justified with the win by Afleet Alex, since I had thought he might be the best horse I'd ever seen at Oaklawn, Smarty included.

Now Afleet Alex is proving himself at stud and Smarty has done well, even though he hasn't sired a horse which could have beaten him on a bad day.  Smarty Jones has returned to his original home in Pennsylvania where there are hopes that his presence will boost the state's breeding program.  Afleet Alex, meanwhile, has a chance to be the leading stallion of the year and it will be interesting, since few runners from Oaklawn's program have managed such a lofty status in the breeding shed.

It all works, however, to lend more integrity to what happens here in Hot Springs between January and April annually.  Now Nehro gets to add his own chapter to this developing story.  Godspeed Nehro.  We've worked a long time at Oaklawn to have days like this and it is fun to be here to savor the moment.    

Don't forget to check the Oaklawn website for my Saturday picks.  Counting the stakes at the tracks selected, there are 23 plays for the day.  We'll do an accounting of them next week.

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