Jan. 17, 2013
Oaklawn only started racing in January in 1991. Except for two years, 2000-2001, the track has scheduled January racing days each year since. Initially Oaklawn took on January dates as an accommodation to horsemen who were already here, getting ready for the live meet. The horsemen and Oaklawn became partners. The horsemen helped support gaming in this area, to fend off the competition of Tunica, and Oaklawn opened in January. It was a compromise the kind of which never happens in Washington, D.C.
For the most part the compromise has worked well. Gaming has been a win-win situation, providing horsemen with substantial purse dollars as well as adding many new jobs in the area. We always understood that there would be bumps in the road when we tried to race in January, but we found a new one this week. Rain.
One year ago Mother Nature granted Oaklawn a reprieve from the potential evils of late winter-early spring weather. But she is a fickle gal and certainly didn’t start us out the same way this year.
It was not just rain, but copious amounts of the wet stuff which caused the racing surface to be unsafe, to the extent that it would take a few days to repair. Those who came to Hot Springs with live racing on their minds, often booking hotel space for the entire weekend, were disappointed, to say the least. Most understood the action taken once it was explained, but it’s never good for the track or horsemen to have disappointed fans. Getting them back always requires some extra nurturing. Hopefully this weekend that whole process can begin.
A look at the history of Oaklawn racing actually shows that February can be just as fickle, weather-wise, as January. For years the most frequently lost day in racing at Oaklawn was February 11. I’m happy to report that this year February 11 falls on a Monday, a non-racing day, so that will not be a factor.
The outlook is significantly better this weekend. It will be a bit chilly, but there should be sufficient time and drying conditions to allow the track to return to its safe condition and the racing appears to be outstanding.
Monday’s Martin Luther King Day program will not just offer free Oaklawn baseball caps to many of those in attendance, but also give fans their first chance to see the best of the local three-year-old crop in its first stakes competition, the Smarty Jones Stakes.
There are 36 nominations for the one mile event, eight of which come from trainer Ken McPeek. But the one runner I was looking for is still on the shelf. He is a son of Tiznow named Titletown Five. Owned in part by former NFL greats Paul Hornung and Willie Davis, this runner may not get going until sometime in March, but has the talent to be one of the really good ones before all is said and done.
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas has charge of Titletown Five and we are always aware that 1) Lukas loves his horses and 2) loves to run his horses. Times have changed in the Lukas barn since the days of owners Eugene Klein and Overbrook Farm. The superstars haven’t come along as frequently as they did in those halcyon days for Lukas, but the Hall-of-Fame trainer, who has become something of a regular in these parts during the past decade, can still train a racehorse and get one ready for the big ones.
Titletown Five may have eluded you, even if you’re an avid racing fan. He really caught some attention when he ran a good second to a horse named Violence, travelling seven furlongs at Saratoga in August. Violence eventually won a nice race called the Cash Call Futurity at Hollywood Park in December. Later, in October, Titletown Five scored his maiden win at seven furlongs at Churchill Downs, beating some respectable rivals handily. He came out of that race with some bone chips which sent him to the sidelines. The injury appears to have been minor enough that he will be back in action before the end of the Oaklawn meet. We can only hope so. Green Bay Packer fans will also watch for him. His jockey wears what look like a Packer uniform for silks, with Hornung’s number five on the back. When Lukas has a good horse, it normally is good for racing, since no one I know is a better ambassador for the sport than Wayne. Furthermore, if he has a good one for such well-known owners, the surrounding publicity will be off the charts.
Monday’s Smarty Jones Stakes may not contain the winner of the Arkansas Derby or the Triple Crown races, but it figures to start the conversation about local three-year-olds and that will be so much fun for the next couple of months. The Southwest, followed by the Rebel and Arkansas Derbies will allow locals to develop some real favorites. We have yet had the chance to size up horses like Officer Alex, Texas Bling or the other proven runners on the grounds, and we don’t know yet if John Servis has plans to bring his highly-regarded Res Judicada this way.
In spite of Mother Nature, those of us in love with live racing will still be able to have our fun. There’s no telling what Mother Nature has in store, but we are prepared for what it’s like to be in Arkansas during this time of year and the fifth season at Oaklawn will give us plenty of newsworthy items beyond the weather for discussion.
Missing two days was a minor setback. Oaklawn fans have dealt with that and more in the past. What we want to see is another champion develop right under our noses. Let’s hope it happens again.