May 4, 2013
When trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel won the first race on Kentucky Oaks Day, he got the attention of those racing fans who had awakened early to be here for the entire program on the eve of the Kentucky Derby. Some were here with the idea that they could advanced wager for Saturday and have that done. But many, who took the chance on the 9-1 shot, Magic Union, were unlikely to leave their seats.
It brought back memories of 2004 Derby Day at Oaklawn. The Smarty Party was highlighted by Smarty Jones’ victory in the Run For the Roses, which provided those inside the Simulcast Center at Oaklawn with winnings of over $1 million for that race alone. There were lots of smiling faces. Even though there was rain at Churchill on that day, the sun was shining at Oaklawn. Ironically rain and even snow fell in Arkansas on this Friday, the latest day for snowfall in Arkansas history. That didn’t have any impact on the spirits of the early crowd at Oaklawn on Friday. They were a happy bunch.
It was interesting how they would make it through the day, since three of the winners of major races of the Racing Festival of the South were due to race on this afternoon. Apple Blossom winner On Fire Baby, Oaklawn Handicap winner Cyber Secret and Fantasy winner Rose to Gold were all scheduled to race and, perhaps, establish themselves in their various divisions with winning efforts.
As long as I’ve been here I’ve always taken special interest in how Oaklawn’s horses have competed with those coming from other tracks. We’ve enjoyed some great moments. Obviously we’ve seen some great horses run here at the track on Central Avenue. They had to go out of their way to get here, but they made their marks when they moved to those racing centers with lots of press and media coverage.
It’s also clear to me that handicapping a card like what Churchill offers on Oaks and Derby Day, like the programs on Breeders’ Cup Days, represent a real lesson in futility. Horses come from so many different areas and surfaces, it takes a magician to pick winners. It just has to be your day.
My best feelings about those days are to find horses which are either your favorites or had a lot of trouble in their last race, as long as it is a reputable track, and back them. It’s fun for those who were here early and cashed on the 9-1 shot, Magic Union, because she was an Oaklawn horse in the first half of the first daily double. They would get a number of chances for Oaklawn horses to get to them later in the day, because that is the law of averages. But the bragging rites of picking a winner can’t be overlooked. I can put my finger on a number of handicappers whose day got a great start on Friday thanks to Magic Union in the first race.
When the field raced in the La Troienne Stakes it was On Fire Baby who raced a tremendous effort in finishing second to Authenticity. The twosome ran side-by-side most of the way and the late chargers never got to contest the issue as the leaders held on all the way around. It was a great effort by On Fire Baby, who had lots of fans here at Oaklawn. Her effort certified that she is as top class as Apple Blossom winners have been for the past few decades and she did herself no shame with the effort in Friday’s race at Churchill.
Just being in the Simulcast Center at Oaklawn on Friday left me with the feeling that there are a lot of people with a positive attitude about this year’s Oaklawn horses in their efforts on Saturday. Friday’s races have left a lot of folks enthused about the successes of those who prepped this spring in Hot Springs.
When Cyber Secret ran a distant second to the co-favored Take Charge Indy, once again the locals were somewhat rewarded for following the stars of this meet. Cyber Secret races for Oaklawn owner Charles Cella, so the win meant plenty to those of us on the staff, who pull for our boss’ horses all the time. Still, he has proven to be very good to Mr. Cella and trainer Lynn Whiting and they have had a lot of fun with him this year, if nothing else good ever happens. They won two stakes at Oaklawn and gave a credible performance on Oaks Day. The ultimate disqualification and placing off the board might have impacted the outcome. He certainly tightened things up on the inside as he headed into the first turn. Still, he ran well and should have some more good days assuming good health.
Friday’s crowd stayed the afternoon and understood that not much was expected from Fantasy winner Rose to Gold as she face presumably the best three-year-old fillies in the land. So there appeared to be little disappointment when that filly got outrun to the turn and the longshot winner rewarded a few vocal supporters. It was quite a contest even though Rose to Gold was not really involved much.
A series of other Oaklawn-raced horses had rewarded the eager crowd and the enthusiasm didn’t seem to dampen. It was really a fun day for racing at Oaklawn – not like live racing, but good. Now we’ll get ready for the big day. Gates open early here and most of the staff will be well worn-down by Saturday evening. But it will be a good feeling, especially if the customers can have a fun day to talk about.