April 13, 2012
It’s been just under 50 years ago that Bob Dylan penned the well-known song, “The Times, They are A-Changin’” It comes to mind as I anticipate Arkansas Derby Day on Saturday. What catches my attention most, being as I am a tradition junkie, is the presence of three sprint races on the Saturday card. For years the racing fans of this area came to Oaklawn expecting all distance races. But the times have changed. It just took a bit longer than Bob Dylan might have expected.
The other thing on the card is the presence of two, not one, maiden races. At least they are Maiden Special Weights races and don’t carry a claiming price. We don’t have to face that change—at least not yet.
The fact is that, with the smaller annual foal output, we simply don’t have as many horses competing these days. I’m quite certain that racing secretary, Pat Pope, would have loved to present a card of all distance races, as we could brag of in the past. But that can’t happen now.
Here’s the good news. There are 12 races on the Saturday card seven of them are scheduled for 12-horse fields, with two others, including the Arkansas Derby, pegged at 11. To my thinking the most exciting race of the day, and the one which could have the most national impact, is the Oaklawn Handicap, which will be run for the 66th time and have a real top level matchup of the best from the east, the west and the middle part of the country. Still it will only take eight horses to create that dream match.
Ironically the best race, from my thinking, is not Grade I. Maybe it will be following this match. The field includes the defending champion, Win Willy, the best local runner, Alternation, the best of the east, Hymn Book, and the best of the west, Ron the Greek. Add to that list the runner-up in the 2011 Arkansas and Kentucky Derbies, Nehro, and you have the best older horse race of the year to this point.
Saturday’s program is a classic and should add plenty to the legacy of the Racing Festival of the South, the most prestigious racing festival in the world. This is the 38th edition of the Racing Festival of the South and should stand up quite nicely by comparison. Even with the loss of runners like Havre de Grace and On Fire Baby from earlier stakes, the events on Saturday are likely to make our racing fans forget those.
While the Oaklawn Handicap is the most aesthetically pleasing to me as a racing fan, the fact remains that three-year-olds are the darlings of racing at this time of year and the expectations are that the race will be won by one of the most famous trainers in racing, either Bob Baffert or D. Wayne Lukas. Whichever would take the Oaklawn representative to the Triple Crown would provide plenty of juicy sound bites heading into the Run For the Roses. But we also know that there have been some big surprises in the Arkansas Derby. Rockamundo in 1993 was a winner at odds exceeding 100-1. Sir Cherokee won the 2003 Arkansas Derby at odds of over 50-1. We are also very aware that you don’t have to win the Arkansas Derby to go on to success in Kentucky.
Lil E. Tee made that clear when he took Pat Day to his first Kentucky Derby win after finishing second to Pine Bluff in the 1992 Arkansas Derby. Of course Pine Bluff got some revenge by winning the Preakness two weeks later.
Super Saver, meanwhile, took Calvin Borel to his third Kentucky Derby win in 2010 after being edged by Line of David just three weeks earlier in Hot Springs.
Neither Line of David, nor Sir Cherokee were able to race in the Kentucky Derby due to injury. So there’s yet another consideration. Add to that, you can sometimes suffer the pains of the worst-possible post position draw, which occurred to Archarcharch just last year. The number one post position at Churchill Downs virtually negates any reasonable chance for victory and, in the case of Archarcharch, set him up for a career ending injury.
Clearly the field is too big for the Kentucky Derby when it puts so many horses and jockeys at risk. That is the work of Churchill Downs to assess. But, like so many other traditions in the sports world, it’s not likely to change in the near future. Luck of the draw, it’s called. We can only hope our Oaklawn reps in this year’s Kentucky Derby won’t be saddled by that bad luck.
On the other hand the Racing Festival of the South and Arkansas Derby Day have substantially changed, so perhaps we’ll see some necessary changes in the Kentucky Derby. Change has been a good thing here at Oaklawn. I hope the powers that be see the advantage of significant change in the size of the Kentucky Derby field so that they can eliminate forcing a horse to start from the dangerous number one post in the gigantic starting gate assembly they use.
Meanwhile, we can be happy that this racing season, which has enjoyed great weather, is going to close on high notes. Change has been embraced and we have not just survived, we have thrived. Times for racing at Oaklawn are good even though they are a-changin’. Now the countdown begins to the next live season, 2013. It’s time to be proud of all that we have enjoyed this year and watch with pride as the horses which raced here take their talents elsewhere. We will get to follow them on Simulcast, which begins at Oaklawn next week.
We’ll do some Derbv Day reviews in this spot next week, but it’s time to open our arms and doors to one of racing’s greatest crowds, the Arkansas Derby Day crowd at Oaklawn. That’s one thing that doesn’t change.