March 9, 2011
Since the beginning of the 21st century, there has been renewed excitement in the Racing Festival at Oaklawn, a concept which was created in the mid-70s in a memorable post-racing conversation one evening between Oaklawn owner, Charles Cella, then racing secretary "Doc" Lavin and TRPB head, Spencer Drayton.
While it's difficult to pinpoint when attitudes really changed about the Racing Festival of the South, it was clearly the emphasis on races like the Arkansas Derby and the Apple Blossom Handicap which spelled a difference in perceptions on the importance of Oaklawn racing in the national picture.
Until Smarty Jones came along in 2004 and captured the $5 million Centennial Bonus, another brainchild of Charles Cella, there had been a gathering feeling that the most significant race annually was becoming the Apple Blossom. Champion Azeri had just made her mark by capturing her third win in a row and followed in a line of great champions which had added the Apple Blossom to their resumes. That included such great equine stars as Banshee Breeze, Escena, Serena,s Song, Heavenly Prize, Paseana, Bayakoa, Lady's Secret, Susan's Girl and several other champions which had earned the race a solid Grade I status.
The concerted effort of Cella and the racing staff at Oaklawn has worked minor miracles to raise the Oaklawn three-year-old program to national status and, while doing so, has established that the three-year-old fillies showing up here are a pretty good group, as well. It is only a matter of time before the Fantasy joins the Derby and Apple Blossom at Grade I status. It's pretty tough to string together races with such quality winners as Eight Belles, Rachel Alexandra and Blind Luck and not have achieved Grade I status. But that's an argument for another day.
Now this week, as we head towards a stakes double-header involving the Honeybee, for three-year-old fillies, and the Razorback Handicap, for older runners, we also know that we're just a week away from another crucial twin-bill on a Saturday, involving the Rebel, for three-year-old Triple Crown prospects, and the Azeri, a prep for the Apple Blossom.
Last April a breathless gathering of local racetrackers wondered what could possibly happen in 2011 which could successfully follow the memorable visit of Zenyatta to Oaklawn.
Now we're seeing the excitement build. Of course there's no Zenyatta, but the list of potential stars due in here to race, both through the preps over the next two weekends and during the Racing Festival, virtually assures us that we'll have plenty of runners of reputation and that some important races here will be the focus of national reputation.
This weekend we'll get our first looks at Fox Hill Farm's duet of the sensational training three-year-old filly Joyful Victory and the well-reputed four-year-old Winslow Homer. Joyful Victory will attempt to repeat the performances of previous Oaklawn-raced fillies in the Fox Hill red-and-white silks, Round Pond and Eight Belles. Winslow Homer will get to show how he can compare to the highly-regarded Win Willy. It's a much anticipated battle between two gray runners,as attractive to the eye as they are competitive on the track.
That will simply be the appetizer for the following weekend's invasion of one of racing's most advertised stars, The Factor, taking on the best of the locals in the Rebel and Fox Hill's star filly, Havre de Grace, making her seasonal debut in the Azeri.
No, they are not Zenyatta, but they certainly make for a good follow-up. The biggest jet plane which lands in Hot Springs annually will then start relaying in other stars for the Racing Festival. Once the weather straightened out and we got rid of the snowy stuff, daffodils began blossom and the most important rite of springtime in Arkansas, the staging of another Racing Festival of the South, started to take some real shape in the minds of Arkansas sports fans. It's our own form of March and April Madness and I, for one, wouldn't miss it.