June 3, 2013

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Hot Springs, Arkansas, is not very far as the crow flies from the parts of Oklahoma which have suffered terrible loss of property and life due to the latest flurry of storms and tornadoes.  It came dangerously close to the city of Hot Springs over the weekend when the western fringes of the area suffered important property damage due to the stormy conditions and areas west of here, bumping on the Oklahoma border, even suffered loss of life, largely attributable to flood.  For the many of us who use highway 270 out of Hot Springs when we head north to the Fayetteville area and points north, the areas where flooding occurred are on land where we have all traveled many times.

I was particularly struck by pictures of horses standing outside in the elements in Oklahoma.  The racetrack at Remington Park, which serves very much as a feeder track for live racing at Oaklawn, appears to have escaped the wrath of the tornadoes thus far, but the season still has some time to pass and no one in that particular area is out of danger.  My heart lies very much with the horses and horsemen at Remington Park as they anticipate how to handle the vicious nature of the storms which pass through that area.

Bad weather (mostly heavy rains) struck at Oaklawn over the weekend and had much to do with the cancellation of Relay For Life, an event close to my heart.  There had never been a cancellation of that signature event of the American Cancer Society in our area in 14 previous years.  Oaklawn was even willing to continue to host the event, however the events of Thursday, plus the prognosis for Friday and Saturday would likely have seriously impacted attendance at the event, especially among the survivor group, for which Relay For Life is directly intended.  I was especially happy with the decision when a gully-washer rain arrived on Saturday morning, about the time that all the fatigued Relayers would have been cleaning up from the event.  Travel in and out of the infield area of the track would have been severely hampered.

Fortunately the dedicated volunteers and Oaklawn have chosen to give it another go on Friday, June 14.  This will likely be a compressed Relay For Life and not go overnight, but it will give the community a chance to honor the many warriors in the community who battle cancer on a daily basis.  Oaklawn especially has stepped forward to be a part of all of this, which is critical, since it is clearly the one spot where such an event can reasonably be held.

While those of us involved in taking the Mulligan on Relay For Life, racing will focus attention this weekend on Belmont Park and the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes.  With no shot at a Triple Crown winner this year, the race takes on a different meaning and will lose the support of many fringe sports fans who are only interested in the Triple Crown.

Oaklawn has enjoyed good success over the last decade or so with runners that prepped here going on to effectively run in the Triple Crown events.  Since 2004 seven “Oaklawn runners” have placed in the Belmont Stakes, including winners Afleet Alex (2005) and Summer Bird (2008).  Thus, it is not out of the question that another with Oaklawn ties will succeed this weekend.  Kentucky Derby winner Orb and Preakness winner Oxbow are both expected in the field as is another interesting member of the field, Freedom Child, the runaway winner of the Peter Pan at Belmont.  Winners of the Peter Pan have often attracted a lot of attention for the Belmont Stakes and this one will be no different. I’m also happy to see that Arkansas Derby winner, Overanalyze, would appear to be among a handful of runners which may carry the banner of the Todd Pletcher in the lengthy race.

Belmont Park is a huge facility.  The mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes is only one time around the oval and has an incredibly long stretch as many of us discovered when Smarty Jones could not hold off Birdstone in the 2004 edition and lost a Triple Crown in the end.  It was the lowest low for me in racing and I don’t have an exclusive on that fact.

But for the past three years the betting favorite has finished off the board.  This is not a race for a favorite.  Or at least it has not been since Afleet Alex’s totally dominant performance in 2005.  So we head into this year’s Belmont with an interested and full field of runners, but very reluctant to let the favorite simply be a given.

I was so impressed with the effort by Overanalyze in the Arkansas Derby, that I may like him this Saturday.  There will be plenty of pace, so I expect the winner to come from off the pace.

I’ve also been impressed with how the hot hand has been ruling racing in so many locations lately.  Trainer David Jacobson has been dominant at Belmont Park.  Jockey Luis Saez won five in one day over the track.  Paying attention to just that sort of information can often keep you from making a huge mistake and passing on a good winner.  I’ve also noticed (and I’m not the only one) that Ken and Sarah Ramsey rarely lose a race in Kentucky when the odds are lower than 3-1.  The horses appear to have the memo.  Ramsey’s horses, most trained by Mike Maker, run brilliantly in Kentucky or New York, whenever they’re given a decent shot.  I’m watching the stock of Midwestern Thoroughbreds.  They were winning a higher percentage earlier in the season.  They’ll probably catch back on later in the year.  But those have been the horses which have dominated to my eye lately.  That won’t necessarily give you the winner of the Belmont Stakes, but it will keep me away from the favorite.  I won’t need the company of the crowd for any misery on Saturday at Belmont.            

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