April 9, 2012
Like many, I haven’t taken the news well that some of racing’s stars, who had the chance to show off for our local audience, will apparently pass on the spots for them during the final week of the 2012 racing season at Oaklawn, but I am thrilled to find that the weather predictions for the final few days have improved and we stand a good chance to finish out this season with outstanding weather.
Weather shouldn’t be the biggest news for a Racing Festival of the South, but it is always critical for a significant racing season to end on a good note and weather almost always plays into that memory. With good weather likely for the Arkansas Derby on Saturday, I think we have a chance to send a worthy representative or two from our three-year-old crop to the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday of May.
Unfortunately there is also a very good chance that the two stars anticipated from the filly and mare ranks for the final week of the season may not compete. Entries have already been taken for the Fantasy Stakes on Wednesday and On Fire Baby, the gray filly who so impressively won the Honeybee Stakes, is not among them. The decision has been made that the Kentucky Oaks is her target race and she will train up to that race. There has also been an announcement that Havre de Grace was, in the judgment of owner Rick Porter, was unfairly treated in the weighting of the race in direct proportion to the weighting of the 2011 Kentucky Oaks winner, Plum Pretty, so Havre de Grace is to be on the sidelines when the Apple Blossom is run on Friday. Our sport has become, over the past three years, dominated by fillies and mares (Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta and Havre de Grace) and it hurts me to see neither of these two, who are prospects to be end-of-the-year honorees participating in this year’s Racing Festival. It wouldn’t hurt as much if they weren’t already on the grounds. But both are here and training. To me, it doesn’t figure.
What has developed, however, is the prospect that the grading of the Apple Blossom Handicap might be held hostage by the fact that we will have a short field, woefully lacking in Grade 1 contenders. Right now it appears that Plum Pretty might be the starting high weight and face the likes of Absinthe Minded, Twelve Twenty Two, She’s All In, and Holy Heavens. Tiz Miz Sue, winner of the Azeri, considered the prep for the Apple Blossom Handicap, is entered in Thursday’s Redbud, but could scratch and re-enter in the Apple Blossom. Either way the race suffers, since there was so much understandable excitement about having Havre de Grace back at Oaklawn this year and there is so much disappointment attendant to the idea that she will simply van out of here without a public appearance at all.
If I had to guess, this is as good a year for these disappointing developments as any. For the public, attending the final two days of the live season at Oaklawn is a social occasion which will go on successfully especially with the cooperation of the weather. It has been tough recently for racing to win the battle for headlines with all of the scandal accompanying the latest incident involving the University of Arkansas football team. Like it or not, Arkansas football dominates sports talk in Arkansas and the scandal has created a feeding frenzy which dwarfs any news from Oaklawn.
Now all of the attention for racing fans will focus directly on Saturday’s $1 million Arkansas Derby. The same question is being asked of Southwest and Rebel winner, Secret Circle, as was asked of Smarty Jones in 2004. Can he get the mile-and-an-eighth? What about that great finish from Optimizer in the Rebel and what about the shippers coming in? There almost always is a “wise guy” horse which surfaces in the final days. Which one might it be?
Now the field for the Arkansas Derby is filling up with those desperately in need of sufficient earnings to qualify for the Run For the Roses. We should have a full field, which will be great. The top horse or two will have proven they belong. They will have shown an ability to successfully negotiate a new distance and done so in front of a big crowd, which will be gathered on both the grandstand and infield sides.
If the race is run without incident, we can only hope to have a real legitimate contender. I don’t think the fans of New Orleans or Chicago can feel that way. The longshot winners of the Louisiana and Illinois Derbies don’t create the buzz that seems to attend the winners of the Florida Derby or Wood Memorial this year.
Here in Arkansas, in the wake of such great horses as Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Curlin and Lawyer Ron, we want to be part of the buzz. Oaklawn, for all the model it serves for in the racing industry, deserves to present the best. In this week, marked by mixed emotions, I am certainly pulling for a great finish on Saturday.
By the way, those of you who were fortunate enough to see Calvin Borel as the special guest at last Saturday’s Dawn at Oaklawn, had the rare opportunity to see one of racing’s really special stars. He rides a horse named Najjaar in the Arkansas Derby. He seems to really like his chances with the son of former Bemont Stakes winner Jazil. Should he win with that colt on Saturday and trainer Dan Peitz chooses to point his late-running three-year-old for the Kentucky Derby, won’t you be as interested as I am to know whether Calvin will ride that colt or Florida Derby winner, Take Charge Indy, in the Run For the Roses? There is almost always some lingering drama from the Racing Festival of the South. Stay tuned. It could still happen.
This Wednesday we start Dawn at Oaklawn sessions each morning at 8:00 a.m. I hope we can lure some early risers out on Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday the attendees will get a chance to meet Donnie K. Von Hemel, son of a great trainer, Don Von Hemel, and conditioner of the very talented four-year-old Caleb’s Posse. We missed seeing Caleb’s Posse in action at Oaklawn this year, but are pleased that Von Hemel made his intentions clear about races for his colt early on and we have seen him perform admirably in sprints against the best of his generation. Von Hemel will talk about him and plenty more on Wednesday. Come by if you have a chance.