April 9, 2013
The tendency on a week like this is to look ahead at the Racing Festival of the South. I admit to being a traditionalist and I’m taken a big aback with the new structure of the Festival. A 4-day Festival doesn’t appeal to my historical feelings, but may be more suited to the modern era. I just don’t like it as much. All that being said, I have more time to look back on what we’ve already seen, since I think it will be what I remember best of all.
With no standout three-year-old to grab my attention at this point and no horse like Zenyatta or Smarty Jones on the scene, I find that my memories of this year are more to an old-time trainer and a new star jockey.
The old-time trainer who caught my eye most of all was D. Wayne Lukas. He is the most remarkable 77-year-old I’ve ever known. Racing benefits from his participation at the highest level of racing. In my experience he is the most articulate and interesting public speaker from the racing industry. There is so much history tied to his years of experience in the sport. When he speaks, people listen. He is, however, a great story teller. His appeal along those line has created a sort of polarizing effect. There are those who love him and those who hate him. Those who feel much of his repertoire is fabricated and those who hang on every story. Count me in the latter group. I could listen to Wayne address crowds as often as I have the chance.
Wayne Lukas gives us older guys a reason to keep on going. He is a hard worker and has had a lot of feeling for those just getting started in the game. He has lent integrity to the sport at Oaklawn by his very presence. This year, when he has had the likes of Oxbow and Will Take Charge in his shedrow, he’s had three-year-olds of national prominence. The horses haven’t impressed me, but Lukas has. He’s managed to win with a handful of others in his shedrow and always takes the time to encourage young racing fans.
While we’ve seen Wayne Lukas prosper at what is presumably the late stages of his career, we have also laid eyes on a young rider who is just laying the groundwork to become a superstar in the sport, Ricardo Santana. Not only will he be the leading rider at the meet, but he will have shown an ability to handle pressurized situations on the track with skill and professionalism. I am especially impressed with how he and his agent, Ruben Munoz, work to improve the rider’s language skills and keep his head on correctly. This is a young rider who will not spend away the significant paychecks he is earning. He is family-oriented, following in the jockey footsteps of his father, Ricardo, Sr., but he make sure of the well-being of his next of kin in his homeland of Panama. He has found his way to the winner’s circle on numerous occasions with some of our most prominent trainers at this meet, namely Steve Asmussen and Mac Robertson, and done so without a lot of fanfare of eagerness to get all the credit. We are used to gentlemen riders in this part of the world. We have celebrated the likes of Larry Snyder, Pat Day, Jon Court, Don Howard, Calvin Borel and many others. Add the name of Ricardo Santana to that list. He will become one of the greats.
While I’m looking back, I want to enjoy the successes of another who has been part and parcel to Oaklawn racing history, Lynn Whiting. I was excited for this year when he arrived with the three-year-old Officer Alex. I thought there was a chance for him to be the best three-year-old on the grounds. I was wrong about that assessment, but vindicated to a degree when Officer Alex won the Bachelor Stakes this past week. Now Lynn is preparing Charles Cella’s Cyber Secret for the biggest task of his career. He will take on Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned in Saturday’s Oaklawn Handicap. Cyber Secret already surprised me with the win in the Razorback Handicap. Perhaps I’ll be pleasantly surprised on Saturday if he can handle a runner of so much national attention as Fort Larned. It’s not all that many years ago when he took on the much-heralded Arazi in the Kentucky Derby with a horse named Lil E. Tee. We now know how that turned out, so Whiting has enjoyed miracle finishes before. He has yet to do it, however, for Cella, who owns the racetrack and has been dedicated to top-class racing for decades. His Northern Spur won the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Turf and the subsequent Eclipse Award. Cella and his family were extended an additional Eclipse Award for their extended commitment to the racing industry ten years later. If he can’t win the Arkansas Derby, then Charles deserves to win the Oaklawn Handicap, particularly because he has befriended Whiting and endeavored to keep the trainer at the top levels of the sport even after Whiting lost his major client, Cal Partee, to an untimely death in 2002.
While I’m not overwhelmed by the anticipation of this year’s Racing Festival, I suspect I’ll change my mind after the races of the week. I’ll probably have a new favorite for the Kentucky Derby and be excited to see how the horses from here perform against their counterparts from other parts of the country in ensuing competition.
But at the beginning of this week my Moments To Remember are tied to names like Lukas, Santana, Whiting and Cella. It’s mostly older guys, I understand. But that’s me. I am excited for the career of young Ricardo Santana Jr. and for the continued success of Oaklawn, to which I’ve dedicated the past four decades of my life. The wonder of this place never ceases to amaze me and many others. I’m just happy to still be part of the team this many years later.