May 13, 2011
If you had a three-year-old not up to the stress and strain of last Saturday's Kentucky Derby, you had the option to point to this Saturday's $200,000 Peter Pan as a kind of consolation stakes at a mile-and-an-eighth. As it turns out there were 11 owners willing to take that route and two of them are quite familiar to Oaklawn fans, Oaklawn owner, Charles Cella, and Mrs. Josephine Abercombrie's Pin Oak Stable.
Charles Cella purchased Uncle Brent following the colt's impressive maiden win at Oaklawn. The dark bay son of Pioneering got six furlongs that day in 1:09.4, a clocking rarely achieved by a first-time starter at Oaklawn. Sent to the barn of veteran Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Lynn Whiting, the gelding was asked to come from off the pace in a one mile allowance race and came up just short. Whiting learned from that outing and waited until closing day of the 2011 live meet before entering Uncle Brent in the Northern Spur, a consolation event to the Arkansas Derby. Forwardly positioned that day the colt responded with a length-and-three-quarters win over the favored Albergatti, with another nice colt, Derivative, finishing third.
There was a temptation to bring Uncle Brent back for the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs, but once again Whiting called an audible and chose to send the gelding to Belmont Park for the Peter Pan. The race is nine furlongs, a full furlong further than he has ever raced. But that doesn't seem to disturb Whiting whatsoever. Whiting is quoted in Daily Racing Form as saying that "I think the horse is ready for a forward move. He won the stakes at Oaklawn off of two starts and I think he's got a forward move in him. We're here to play the game."
That sort of talk sounds like he might be echoing the sentiments of owner Cella, who has been known to "play the game" as a very willing participant a number of times in the past. He played the game when he reached into his own pocket for the $5 million Centennial Bonus in 2004. That money was offered to any three-year-old capable of winning the Rebel and Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn, followed by the Kentucky Derby in that year, which celebrated Oaklawn's 100th anniversary. Of course the story has been told over and over how Smarty Jones captured the bonus and came within a furlong of being racing's first Triple Crown winner five weeks later when he was caught by Birdsong in the late stages of the mile-and-a-half Belmont.
Cella also "played the game" when he offered up $5 million of his own money to stage the match race between defending Horse-of-the-Year, Rachel Alexandra, and the number one contender, Zenyatta, in the spring of 2010. While that race never came off, Cella reaped priceless coverage for a non-event. When Zenyatta did show for the race, over 44,000 fans showed up at Oaklawn on a Friday afternoon to enjoy the "Zenyatta " experience. Track officials were prepared for over 100,000 had Rachel Alexandra been able to compete on the same afternoon. Even so, because Cella "played the game", his track attracted the eyes of the racing world on that day. His courage has helped him in his quest to have the "best damned racetrack in America". To those who have been loyally committed to his Oaklawn dream, it was a moment in time. And it was a moment which may have made him the "best damned racetrack owner in America."
If anyone deserves to win races like the Peter Pan, it is Cella. He has had big-time joy before. He owned and raced Northern Spur when the colt won the Breeders' Cup Turf, over a boggy surface under Chris McCarron in 1995. So bad was the turf that day that Northern Spur wired the good field in 2:42. five seconds slower than any other Breeders' Cup Turf Stakes EVER!!
But Cella collected the Eclipse Award that year and he and his family got another in January, 2005, when they were honored for their contributions to the racing game.
If ever a guy earned his collection of awards, it's Cella. His competitive nature has allowed him to enjoy a number of sports at a high level and to live life to the fullest along the way.
The other Oaklawn-raced horse in the Peter Pan is Alternation. This is the colt which suffered a meltdown in the starting gate for the Rebel Stakes, causing an inordinate delay. The Donnie K. Von Hemel was the "wise guy" horse that week, for those looking to defeat the obvious favorite, The Factor.
Sluggishly leaving the gate in the subsequent Arkansas Derby (who could be surprised after his previous experience), the handsome son of Distorted Humor was last and 18 lengths behind the leader in the early going of the Arkansas Derby. He eventually finished fifth, beaten only six-and-a-quarter lengths. Von Hemel has seen the colt work brilliantly in recent weeks at Arlington Park. His last two were bullet works at five and six furlongs. It's hard to imagine that, with a good start on Saturday, he won't have a say in the outcome.
For Oaklawn, the Peter Pan could very well be the consolation prize. After seeing Nehro finish second in the Kentucky Derby and Archarcharch break down, never to race again, it's a chance for Oaklawn's three-year-old class to rise to the top. I can't speak much about Mrs. Abercrombie, but I can tell you that, if Charles Cella's horse wins the Peter Pan, I'll wish I was there. There may be some major league partying in the Big Apple on Saturday evening.