As the Dust Clears

April 18, 2012

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Here we are, following the completion of the live meet at Oaklawn and we can bask in a season of success. Much can be made about the beautiful weather conditions which attended this season at Oaklawn.  We discussed it while it was happening and always hoped it would continue to the end.  Against all the springtime odds one could find in any past performances of Arkansas spring weather, the conditions remained great for racing and an increase in attendance was certainly attained.

The only successes at Oaklawn this year were not attendance. There were many excellent performances, underscored by the brilliance of Bodemeister in the Arkansas Derby on Saturday.  His performance shocked many in the racing industry and there appears to be a consensus building that he should be the post-time favorite for the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 5, at Churchill Downs.

It’s hard to argue that. He has the speed to get out of trouble and at no time did he appear to be backing up at the mile-and-an-eighth distance. It cost me a steak dinner when Bodemeister destroyed stablemate Secret Circle and nine others in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby. Jay Privman, whose writing and tv commentary stands on its own merits, is the winner of the dinner, the result of a little side wager we made at the Saturday Dawn at Oaklawn gathering. Privman was a big fan of Bodemeister and he has convinced me, along with many others. Among the many others are quite a few whose task will be to finish in front of him with their horses at a mile-and-a-quarter in the Run for the Roses.

One thing we know for sure, there is the usual abundance of speedy one headed to Kentucky.  As long as the champion Hansen is in the race the pace should be honest, if not speedy.  Bodemeister’s winning run on the front end of the Arkansas Derby and prior races in California seem to put him in the same category. Calvin Borel will be riding Take Charge Indy in the Kentucky Derby and that colt staged his Florida Derby win on the front end. I imagine the search for the ideal closer will be the work of the press and media over the next two-plus weeks.

It is the best springtime exercise for handicappers, to come up with the Kentucky Derby winner.  So now let the talking heads have their time. For me this discussion is so much more entertaining than many of the issues which seem to dog the sports world this year.

But almost overlooked during our weekend was the success of John Fort’s Peachtree Stable in winning the two distaff races, the Fantasy with Mamma Kimbo and the Apple Blossom Handicap with Plum Pretty.  Fox Hill Farm were the first owners and Larry Jones the first trainer to accomplish that in the same Racing Festival.  Peachtree’s success and that of trainer Bob Baffert has some tough hoofprints to follow.  Fox Hill won the Apple Blossom with Havre de Grace and she went on to become Horse-of-the-Year.  Fox Hill’s Joyful Victory failed to sustain the momentum of the Oaklawn win, but was highly-regarded for the Kentucky Oaks, which she lost, ironically, to Plum Pretty.  Now we will see how Peachtree pursues a goal like that.  Certainly both Mamma Kimbo and Plum Pretty put on very good shows in the Oaklawn wins, but it will be in the continued successes we will find whether they can match up with the only other outfit to accomplish that special double at Oaklawn.

Peachtree Stables operates out of Camden, South Carolina.  This writer had the privilege of speaking to the South Carolina Owners and Breeders Association last fall and was impressed by the passion that group expressed in a state with no pari-mutuel racing and little hope of getting there.  They now, in their underscored way, can share in the success of one of their own and the dominance shown by the likes of Mamma Kimbo and Plum Pretty for owner John Fort.

We’ve spoken a number of times of how the fillies and mares have become so dominant in the sport over the past few years.  The past three winners of Horse-of-the-Year honors, Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta and Havre de Grace, have all beaten their male counterparts in major races and we expect to see some of the same by Mamma Kimbo and Plum Pretty this year, as well.

Bodemeister is the “now” horse, as the three-year-old who dominated in winning the Arkansas Derby, but the likes of Mamma Kimbo, Plum Pretty and Oaklawn Handicap winner Alternation may all capture national headlines before the dust settles on the 2012 racing year.

At Oaklawn the dust has now settled and we still won’t get rain until the end of the week.  It has been an extraordinary year.  But it remains to be seen how extraordinary it might turn out.  The representatives of the live racing meet at Oaklawn will get to show off at other racing venues around the country and my guess is that they will continue to show the value of having Oaklawn racing on their resumes.

This has been an exciting time for us at Oaklawn and the numbers prove it. Dozens of other racetracks would love to know the recipe for success which seems to occur at Oaklawn annually.  If there is a recipe, it is as closely guarded as the recipes for some of our most famous eats and drinks.  There is no one thing which makes it work, but it helps when the town, like Hot Springs, get behind it and holds it in high esteem.  We’ve got that going for us and there are a lot of people around here who hated to see it end.

We’ve already started the countdown for 2013.  For most of us it can’t come soon enough.

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