Derby/Oaks Fever

May 5, 2011

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To the many who will gather at Louisville, Kentucky, this weekend the happenings in Hot Springs, Arkansas, might never occur.  But to the die-hard Oaklawn followers who will pass through the turnstiles at this track on Friday and Saturday, the results of a few key races will linger and go a long way to sustaining a tradition which many in Arkansas hold near and dear.
The general feeling around Oaklawn since the post position draw for the Kentucky Derby is "I feel good about Archarcharch, but not about that number one post position."

Ironically in three of the races which matter most to Oaklawn fans, the objects of their affection drew the rail post.  On Friday Joyful Victory, who will be favored off her brilliant races in both the Honeybee and Fantasy Stakes, will start from the number one post, while Arienza, who ran a game though non-threatening second to Joyful Victory in the Fantasy, will assume the number one post in the Eight Belles, a stakes race named after another who made her reputation partly off a good win in the Fantasy.

Is it a Fantasy to imagine all three of these Oaklawn stars winning from the inside post?  Let's just say it's fantastic if any of them win and from this corner, it appears possible, given the great performances by those who competed in Oaklawn races thus far at the Churchill meet.  On Thursday afternoon jockey Jon Court, who has the task of winding Archarcharch through the 20-horse field in Saturday's Run For the Roses, won back-to-back races, one out of post one and the other from post eleven in an eleven-horse field.  Both were for racing veterans, the septagenarians "Jinks" Fires and D. Wayne Lukas.

Yet another impressive Oaklawn Racing Festival of the South winner, Smiling Tiger, who was brilliant in the Count Fleet Sprint Handicap, will represent trainer Jeff Bonde from the number two hole Churchill Downs Handicap, a seven furlong dash which appears right up his alley in Saturday's ninth race.

What could spoil some of the hopes of Arkansas racing fans is something else which has become familiar to Arkansans lately, rain.

Rain is in the morning forecast at Louisville on Friday and posed as an all-day event on the Weather Channel.  Those of us who like to see the glass half-full like to remember that rain was a morning event at Churchill Downs in 2004 when Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby and, in doing so, the $5 million Oaklawn bonus.

But rain has ruined many a great racing and we hope it doesn't do so for the folks at Churchill Downs on either Friday or Saturday.  We also don't like it for the many Simuilcast fans across the nation who look forward so much to the two great days of racing at Churchill.  There will be two more great racing days at Churchill in the Fall, when Breeders' Cup is run under the Twin Spires, and we hope just as fervently that those races don't have to face adverse weather conditions.

Starting from the rail and from post 19 in a 20-horse field, Oaklawn's one-two Arkansas Derby finishers, Archarcharch and Nehro, come at this race with plenty against them.  The good news is that they have plenty going for them.  Both have shown the athleticism to win under adverse conditions, both have performed before a big crowd, gathered on both sides of the racetrack and both have trained as well as could be expected coming up to the race.  Archarcharch has amazed all observers with the great looks and sharpness during morning training hours, while (until he drew post 19) Nehro had become the "wise guy horse", a label which generally means the horse most likely to surprise.  Both runners have learned how to work their way through large fields and appear fearless.  We can't say that about the whole field, but we can abour Archarcharch and Nehro.

But before we get to the challenges of Saturday, we have to face Friday.  Both Joyful Victory and Arienza are accorded great chances to win.  The fans at Oaklawn will be loud in their support and do a good job of prepping themselves for the excitement of Saturday's card.  

It's true, those in Kentucky willl have all of the ambiance of being there in person.  But at Oaklawn it will be the next best thing.  They have the horses in which they believe and they'll be ready to make noise which will be heard at least a couple of blocks down the street.  There's a good chance that a number of them will be queueing up to cash some tickets after the races and that's just as much fun, whether you're in Louisville or Hot Springs.

What we have here is a dose of Oaks/Derby fever and we intend to pass it on.

By the way, I also have a serious investment in the success of the annual silent and live auctions which are conducted annually at Oaklawn Simulcast on Kentucky Derby Day.  They benefit the American Cancer Society, a charity close to my heart, and will be submitted by our Relay For Life team.  Relay For Life is a year-long fund-raising effort which culminates in an overnight event, scheduled this year for Friday-Saturday, June 3-4, at the Oaklawn infield.  Oaklawn's infield has hosted this community event for nearly a decade and it is a source of great pride for many of us employees who get into the American Cancer Society event.

There are many nice opportunities through both the silent and live auctions.  But the one which always means the most to me personally is the dinner which I host at my house on the Friday of Breeders' Cup weekend.  That gourmet dinner has attracted many nice bids over the years and given me the opportunity to meet racing fans I might never encountered.  If you're coming to Oaklawn this weekend, look over the auction items and participate.  You'll be helping a great cause and we might even be getting together for a great meal at my place in November.

I'll admit I've got the fever bad.  But this is a good kind of fever to have.  As Peggy Lee used to describe fever, either "Farenheit or Centigrade".      

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