Star Power Sadly Missing

Aug. 29, 2012

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It was almost justice that Saturday’s Travers Stakes ended in a dead heat between two horses totally unknown by the majority of the American sports public.  The public is wrapped up in the start of the upcoming football season and the only way to cut into that American sports addiction is to offer something which catches the attention.  Saturday’s Travers didn’t appear to succeed from my viewpoint.  It didn’t offer the kind of enthusiasm from Oaklawn’s simulcast audience that we’ve learned to expect from the past.  It figured to produce an unsatisfactory result.  Like “kissing your sister”, it used to be called when there was a “draw.”

In a way it reminds me of a conversation I heard between one of the talking heads on Arkansas radio recently and a fan who had called into the show.  That talking head admitted that his favorite team would be in a rebuilding mode next year, but that his favorite team had the makings for a great year this year.  I’m happy for Saratoga that they were able to draw 46,000+ for Saturday’s race, but during the really interesting years a Travers Stakes should and should pull a much bigger crowd than that.

What triggers my biggest concern is that the lack of star power in racing this year is more than just a rebuilding.  If there were some real standouts from the two-year-old class,  we’d have some hope at least for the end of this year and the beginning of next year.  So far I haven’t seen that develop.

My guess is that the overwhelming number of sports fans in America can’t name I’ll Have Another as the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness or that Bodemeister ran second in both.  Since both horses have been retired, they have no chance whatsoever to reinforce their place in racing.  Now, in the aftermath of a dead heat in the Travers, the folks with Alpha are seeing stars and thinking that they have a shot at a title.  What a joke.  While a nice horse and clearly a money-winner for his owners, Alpha doesn’t rank among the top five three-year-olds, except for the fact that he’s still around in late August.

What happened this weekend of real note should have been the upset of Royal Delta, who really has looked like a champion. Saratoga has the reputation as the “graveyard of favorites” and never more than it was for Royal Delta on Saturday. She lost to a horse I don’t think I’d ever heard of before, Love and Pride, yet still will reign at the top of the filly and mare set because she at least tried and it appears there will be more chances for her to re-establish herself at the head of her class.  That upset was real news to a racetracker and a bigger story than the Travers, would it not have been that a dead heat in the Travers only occurs about once a century.  By the way, can you name the second horse in the dead heat?  It was Golden Ticket.  He got into the race because an allowance race and an overnight stakes race carded earlier in the week didn’t get enough entries to fill and trainer Kenny McPeek thought the horse needed a race.  Better to be lucky than smart once again.

Most of us at Oaklawn were tickled to see trainer D. Wayne Lukas in the winner’s circle with Optimizer on the undercard on Saturday.   Sent to the turf for this race, the Rebel Stakes runner-up had teased the locals with his Rebel finish and developed a pretty good following for the Arkansas Derby, where he was never a factor.  But his pedigree has screamed for turf right along and the son of English Channel was untroubled by an outside post position, grabbing the lead from the outset and striding to a clear victory over allowance horses.  Lukas is likely to try to find a turf stakes for his three-year-old and, being that it’s Lukas, that race is likely to come pretty quickly.   Lukas likes to “race ‘em when they’re good.”

In the “Grade 1” races this weekend Oaklawn-raced horses could do fourth at best.  Tiz Miz Sue was fourth in the Personal Ensign, behind Love and Pride and Royal Delta, while Atigun finished fourth behind the dead-heated tandem of Alpha and Golden Ticket in the Travers.  Both runners had their chance, but weren’t quite good enough.  On the other hand, neither was best of their crop at Oaklawn.  The best of their classes have retired.

The best thing going on at Oaklawn this week was the handicapping contest. Oaklawn’s Jason Milligan had learned how to stage a very good handicapping contest and this weekend’s competition had 79 entrants.  Phil Webber of Hot Spring Village won by more than doubling his initial bankroll.  He learned most of his handicapping from his dad, Ralph, who was handicapping successfully long before Beyer Speed Figures, the Ragozin Sheets or any of the other new technology which is supposed to make you a better player.  Phil will head a three-man team to the Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans Casino in Las Vegas in late February.  We can only wish them the best.  If they have success, what went on in Las Vegas will, like Prince Harry’s pictures, be blasted all over the Internet.  I’ll see to that.  Forget the unwritten rules about things in Las Vegas.

Real enthusiasm for racing was evident in the Players Pavilion this weekend at simulcast when the tournament was on and the players really had both money and personal pride at stake.  It was fun to see a lady, Sarah Arthur, lead the tournament after the first day.   Sarah won a special prize of $1,000 for that.  Although she couldn’t sustain the effort for the second day, it went to show that this is not just a man’s game.   Phil and Sarah are local stars and should have had their successes covered by local media.  Sadly none of the local media was on the scene.  But there were dozens of inches of copy about the upcoming mismatch between the University of Arkansas football team and what used to be called in the boxing game “the bum of the month.”

With no stars, racing is one of the sports world’s best kept secrets.  In Hot Springs that is liable to be the case until the opening of the live meet in January.  We would be embarrassed to have just 46,000 show up for our big day.  That’s what happens at the more celebrated racetracks where there are no real stars on hand.  Star power really matters.

For what it’s worth, the “Pay Per View” telecast of the Arkansas football game will be offered free of charge to Oaklawn fans on Saturday evening at 6:00 p.m. in both the simulcast and gaming areas.  Two weeks from last Sunday we will again offer the Daily Racing Form Pigskins and Ponies Match Game to our simulcast players.  As long as America has this fascination with football, we might just as well tag along.  If you’re in Arkansas, it helps if you learn the expression “Woooooo Pig Soiee”!!  Now there is some star power with the Razorback football team.         


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