March 9, 2012
When we began the week, our local meteorologists were predicting hard rain for Friday, Saturday and Sunday of this week. It was bad enough that we were losing an hour’s sleep, having to turn our clocks ahead an hour on Saturday night in order to welcome Daylight Savings Time. There was a good chance we wouldn’t see much daylight even so.
What made it all the worse for racing fans is that the outstanding races like the Honeybee and Razorback Handicap seemed destine to be run on “off” tracks, which rarely produce satisfying results. Races on “off” tracks often get lines drawn through them by serious handicappers as they approach their next race.
Now it seems likely that the weather prediction couldn’t have been more wrong and the apologetic meteorologists are admitting that there may not be rain in this area until late Sunday. That virtually assures a fast track for Saturday and, with the accompanying wind, Friday could get there as well, in spite of a few inches of rain, most of which fell between 1:15 and 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, in advance of the first race.
One thing Oaklawn can brag on over the recent years has been a strong class of three-year-old fillies. Most recently the barn of trainer Larry Jones and his wife, Cindy, has dominated in the Honeybee Stakes, one of the co-features this Saturday. That domination comes to an end this year. Instead the field is led by such standouts as On Fire Baby, Amie’s Dini and Rocket Twentyone. All of them are stakes winners at a mile or over and worthy to be added to a list of Honeybee winners which includes Eight Belles, Just Jenda, No Such Word and Joyful Victory. That quartet were from the Jones barn, which dodged the bullet in 2009 when Rachel Alexandra passed the Honeybee, but came back and won the Fantasy with a flair.
While this appears to be another strong group of three-year-old fillies, it also looks like a good year for older runners of quality, something which has been somewhat lacking in recent years. Saturday’s Razorback Handicap features the presence of New York and Arkansas stakes winner, Alternation, California stakes winner, Tapizar, and the ultimate “horse-for course” Win Willy, who boasts a local mark of five wins from 11 starts and local earnings of $682,500, much of which came from his win in the 2011 Oaklawn Handicap.
There was a suggestion on the radio this morning that Oaklawn is heading into the stretch run. I don’t think that’s true. If we are comparing this to college sports, in college sports there is the pre-season, a series of games which don’t mean a whole lot and compare to what goes on in the first couple of weeks at Oaklawn annually. Then there is the conference season, which compares to where we are now. In college sports there is the post-season or bowl season and that compares to the Racing Festival of the South. So I think we’re in the midst of our conference season and we see horses posturing for the big kahuna down the road.
That being the case, next weekend continues the posturing with races like the Azeri, for older fillies and mares, and the Rebel, which has added meaning this year since the $500,000 purse virtually assures the winner will have enough graded stakes earnings to qualify to start in the Kentucky Derby and head on the road to the most elusive prize in sports, the Triple Crown. Those two races are both conducted next Saturday, March 17, which doubles as St. Patrick’s Day. It will be a huge weekend in Hot Springs and already, with Spring Break, a boat and truck giveaway at the track, and the other activities of the day, those in the local tourist industry are seeing it as just behind Arkansas Derby weekend as the biggest weekend of the year in this resort community.
This week has already been a pretty good one for the town, since it hosted both the men’s and women’s Sun Belt Conference basketball tournaments, all of the state high school basketball tournament games and now the big races at Oaklawn. With the nice spring that we’ve had, the flowers are out, the trees are beautiful and the excitement of local sports fans is palpable.
We’ve seen a steady increase in the interest in our Saturday morning (8-10 a.m.) Dawn at Oaklawn production. Fans may gather on the south apron of the grandstand and the program will either be conducted from there or moved inside in case of uncooperative weather. The word “free” strikes home to nearly everyone, so the fact that Dawn at Oaklawn is free helps. Add to that the free coffee and donuts and the chance to watch horses on the track under virtually no stress and you have the recipe for a wonderful way to start a Saturday. This week our fans will also get to meet our new announcer, Frank Mirahmadi, and our Horsemen’s Relations Director, Deborah Keene. Both are critical to the success of our product during live racing at Oaklawn and the fans will enjoy seeing them. It’s my pleasure to be the emcee of that show. I learn just like the others. Come to think of it, I believe we all learn new things each day we come to the track. I was an educator before I started working on the track, so it figures I’d be inspired by the continuing education element which goes on daily during live races.
But I’ve never learned how to solve racing which is run over a sloppy or muddy track. Now that we are using the word “sealed” on tracks across the land, I’m further confused. Even though I was close friends with the late Lee Tomlinson, who provided so much pedigree help (Daily Racing Form’s Tomlinson numbers) in determining chances for success for horses on both turf (which means nothing here) and mud, which can mean plenty in some years, I’ve never been able to translate that into steady success as a handicapper. As a matter of fact I have a friend who maintains a handicapping service and advises his players not to use his picks if the track is “off”.
How pleased I am to see that the weather forecast for this weekend has changed just in time. By the way, for what it’s worth, the Weather Channel is predicting a beautiful day for St. Patrick’s Day in Hot Springs. It does say we’ll have rain on Thursday, Friday and Sunday, but not on Saturday. I’m not so sure that I want to depend on that long-term information, given what we were told this week.