Jockey Alex Birzer Hoping to Reach 3,000-Win Milestone During Oaklawn Meet

Jockey Alex Birzer could reach two career milestones during the 2017 Oaklawn meeting that begins Jan. 13. According to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization, Birzer has 2,983 career victories. He rode his first winner in 1992.

Only 173 jockeys have reached 3,000 North American victories, the last being Kerwin “Boo Boo” Clark Dec. 15 at Delta Downs.

“I have been tracking that,” Birzer, 43, said during training hours Friday morning. “I haven’t really said too much to anybody, but I’ve been clocking it.”

Birzer also needs 19 victories to reach 300 at Oaklawn, where he has ridden regularly since 2009.

Backed strongly by Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, Birzer finished fifth in the Oaklawn standings in 2016 with 30 victories. He then rode 83 winners to tie Ramon Vazquez for the riding title at Prairie Meadows and finished fifth in the Remington Park standings with 41 victories. Overall, Birzer finished 2016 with 154 victories from 1,047 mounts and purse earnings of $3,656,433.

“Great year,” Birzer said. “When I first started, I would have never dreamed of winning 3,000 races. When you’re young like that, you just want to ride. I would have never imagined 25 years later that I’m sneaking up on 3,000. It’s just wild.”

In addition to Van Berg, Birzer said he anticipates riding for longtime supporters Lynn Chleborad and Gene Jacquot at the Oaklawn meeting.

“I’ve had a lot of the same people the last few years,” Birzer said. “I think that’s what’s been nice about it.”

Birzer rode his first of 281 Oaklawn winners in 1999.

Million Dollar Man?

Trainer Don Von Hemel of Hot Springs is a member of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame, is credited with 2,516 victories since 1956, was Oaklawn’s leading trainer in 1981 and saddled Win Stat to set a world record for a mile and 70 yards in 1984 at Oaklawn.

But, Von Hemel, 82, has never trained a millionaire.

“I always turn them over to Donnie,” Von Hemel jokingly said about his son, Donnie K. Von Hemel. “He’s trained about seven of them.”

Don Von Hemel could strike that off his bucket list in 2017, possibly at Oaklawn. He trains multiple stakes winner Smack Smack, who has earned $930,430 for country music star Toby Keith, also breeder of the 5-year-old Closing Argument gelding. Von Hemel said Smack Smack could make his 2017 debut in the $125,000 Fifth Season Stakes Jan. 13.

A victory in the 1 1/16-mile race would make Smack Smack a millionaire.  He is also under consideration for an allowance spot Von Hemel said.

“I’d love to see him do it here,” Von Hemel said, referring to millionaire status. “Most of mine have just been blue-collar horses, trying to fit wherever we’ve taken them.”
In addition to Smack Smack, Von Hemel’s top horses have included Mariah’s Storm (career earnings of $724,895), No Spend No Glow ($548,352), Now I Know ($461,721) and Win Stat ($438,378).

Smack Smack bankrolled $427,366 this year, highlighted by a victory in the $300,000 Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap (G3) July 2 at Prairie Meadows. He added the $175,000 Downs At Albuquerque Handicap Aug. 6 at Albuquerque.

“He’s very sound,” Von Hemel said. “If you look back, that horse gets better in late summer, early fall, than he does around the end of spring. Some horses have a certain time of the year that they come into their own.”

Smack Smack, who has won 10 of 30 career starts, recorded a 5-furlong bullet (1:00) Dec. 23 in preparation for his 2017 debut.

Finish Lines

The track was rated fast for workouts Friday morning. … Petrov, in company, breezed 5 furlongs in 1:01.80 just after the track opened Friday morning for co-owner/trainer Ron Moquett of Hot Springs. Petrov is scheduled to make his 3-year-old debut in the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 16, the first of Oaklawn’s four major Triple Crown preps. Petrov, runner-up in the $100,000 King’s Swan Stakes Dec. 2 at Aqueduct, worked in company with stablemate Dupree, a 2-year-old Caleb’s Posse colt who finished third in his last start, an Oct. 8 maiden special weights sprint at Belmont Park. Dupree is named for former Oklahoma, USFL and NFL running back Marcus Dupree. … Following the first renovation break Friday morning, Warrior’s Club worked a half-mile in :49.20 in preparation for the Smarty Jones. … Weather permitting, another scheduled Smarty Jones starter, Uncontested, will “probably” work Saturday morning, owner Harry Rosenblum said. … Millionaire Mr. Z worked 5 furlongs in a bullet 1:00.60 just after the track opened Friday morning in preparation for the $125,000 Fifth Season Stakes Jan. 13. … Multiple stakes winner Super Saks worked a half-mile in :48.40 after the first of two renovation breaks Friday morning. Super Saks is pointing for the $125,000 American Beauty Stakes Jan. 28, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. … Trainer Tom Howard of Hot Springs said multiple Oaklawn stakes winner Ivan Fallunovalot (minor illness) is scheduled to return to the track Saturday morning. Howard said Ivan Fallunovalot has been walking the shedrow and remains on schedule to make his 2017 debut in the $125,000 King Cotton Stakes Feb. 4, a race the gelding has won the last two years. … In addition to Alex Canchari, agent Gene Short of Hot Springs said he will represent Carlos Marquez Jr. at the 2017 meeting scheduled to begin Jan. 13.

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