Thursday, January 12, 2017

New Announcer Vic Stauffer Excited for Opening Day

As the soon-to-be agent for Bobby Lester, a big winner at Oaklawn during the mid-1990s, Vic Stauffer was laying the groundwork for a meet a few years later in Hot Springs when he checked in one morning with the jockey’s major client.

Stauffer’s visit with this trainer was – literally – the beginning of the end.

“I was here only two or three days, at the most,” Stauffer said, recalling one break in a lengthy career as a track announcer. “Lester had lost the trainer’s barn and forgot to tell me. They had 60 horses, and he was riding them all.”

Stauffer said his parting words to Lester, whom he had previously represented, were: “Drive me to the airport, please.”

“I was here for no time at all,” Stauffer said. “Literally, I think I was here for 72 hours.”

Almost 20 years later, Stauffer is back at Oaklawn, and this time to stay – at least until mid-April. When Oaklawn’s scheduled 57-day season begins Friday, Stauffer will be just the sixth track announcer in Oaklawn history.

Stauffer, 57, has called more than 40,000 races at some 12 tracks across the country since 1985, including Gulfstream Park, Hialeah and Golden Gate Fields. He also spent 12 years as track announcer at Hollywood Park before the storied suburban Los Angeles venue was shuttered Dec. 22, 2013.

Save a 10-day stint in October at the Big Fresno Fair in northern California, Stauffer said he hasn’t called races on a regular basis since Hollywood Park closed more than three years ago.

Stauffer said he was so concerned about rust, that leading up to the Oaklawn meeting he planned to go to Fair Grounds and “practice” calling races from the press box.

“Doing Fresno really helped, because before I did Fresno, I didn’t even know if I still knew how to do it,” Stauffer said. “But once I did Fresno, I felt totally comfortable. … Fresno made me believe that I didn’t have to do that (Fair Grounds).”

Stauffer said he has “supreme confidence” that his calls at Oaklawn will be “worthy of the races that we run.”

His past performance lines include calling icons like 2002 Horse of the Year and three-time Oaklawn Apple Blossom champion Azeri; 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta, a two-time Apple Blossom winner; and 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro.

“And when I say rust, my calls three weeks into the meet will be better,” Stauffer said. “But my calls on opening day will be good.”

Stauffer, who has won two Eclipse Awards for radio broadcasting, said if he had been tapped as Oaklawn’s track announcer in, say, 2000, it would be a “springboard” to year-round work.

But these days, Stauffer said he’s comfortable with his slices of life, at home, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is president and minority owner of the Pittsburg Diamonds, an independent professional baseball team in San Francisco’s East Bay region that plays June, July and August, and an accomplished horse racing tournament handicapper.

Adding 57 racing dates in late winter and early spring at Oaklawn, Stauffer said, completes what he calls his “Valhalla.”

It’s certainly different than the 72 or so hours Stauffer, who would later represent big-name riders like Joel Rosario and Martin Garcia, spent in Hot Springs almost 20 years earlier.

“The one thing that didn’t change was everybody is happy, which you don’t see at the racetrack a lot,” Stauffer said. “But at this place, everybody is just happy to be here. Me, too.”

Stauffer, also a former California steward and analyst for TVG, was hired in August to replace Pete Aiello, now track announcer for Gulfstream Park’s winter meet.

Sudden Breaking News

Trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel saddled his first Kentucky Derby starter, Clever Trevor, in 1989. But, Von Hemel didn’t have his second until 2016, when Arkansas Derby runner-up Suddenbreakingnews finished a closing fifth under regular rider Luis Quinonez.

“It was different,” Von Hemel said. “It’s become more and more of an event. The walkover has become a great thing now. Back then, a few trainers walked over with their horses, but now half the backside is walking over, it seems. We’ve got owners, we’ve got trainers, friends of family.”

Suddenbreakingnews was beaten 4 ¾ lengths by champion Nyquist. Exaggerator, who would win the Preakness two weeks later, was second. A head and nose separated Suddenbreakingnews from finishing third.

Von Hemel said his late-running entrant found plenty of trouble during the 1 ¼-mile journey that drew a full field of 20.

“He had to do a little of this and a little of that,” Von Hemel said. “It’s a rough-run race.”

Footnotes from the official chart said Suddenbreakingnews was “jammed up just after the start,” “steadied nearing the wire the first time,” “altered out and around a tiring rival leaving the far turn” and “was maneuvered out sharply inside the three-sixteenths pole.”

“Another jump we’re third,” Von Hemel said. “I don’t think you could outrun those other two horses that day. I was thrilled to death with his effort in the Derby. To go to a race of that magnitude and have your horse show up and run – I think, as a trainer, there’s so many things that you have to overcome. Just for him to show up and run, to me, it’s a success.”

Owned by Texan Samuel F. Henderson, Suddenbreakingnews was a last-to-first winner of Oaklawn’s $500,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) last February.

Suddenbreakingnews was under consideration for Friday’s $125,000 Fifth Season Stakes, but Von Hemel decided to pass the 1 1/16-mile race because recent winter weather caused the horse to miss too much training to run off a lengthy layoff.

“Some of these other ones that had ran last month, you can probably get by missing a few more days,” Von Hemel said. “But I think it was more critical to him, when you miss four days in a row.”

Von Hemel said he will probably work Suddenbreakingnews Friday or Saturday in preparation for his yet-to-be announced 4-year-old debut.

The Fifth Season is the first of four local two-turn stakes races for older horses, a series that culminates with the $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) April 15.

Van Berg’s Special Girl

Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg is scheduled to be represented by a starter in the first race of the meeting Friday, a sprint for $25,000 maiden-claiming fillies. But, Liza G. is more than just a horse to Van Berg, Oaklawn’s leading trainer in 1983 and 1984.

The filly is named after Liza G. Fly, Van Berg’s longtime girlfriend who died of cancer July 7 in Hot Springs. She was 57.

“The horse was named after she passed away,” Van Berg said.

In her only career start, Liza G. finished fifth Nov. 9 at Churchill Downs.

All in the Family

Will VanMeter begins his fourth calendar year as a trainer with a new wife and younger brother, Headley, helping shape a 16-horse stable at Oaklawn.

VanMeter, 32, said Tuesday morning that he married longtime girlfriend/assistant Kristin Fischer, 28, Jan. 2 at Garvan Woodland Gardens’ Anthony Chapel complex in Hot Springs.

Headley VanMeter, 22, recently graduated from Birmingham-Southern College and was a lacrosse player at the private liberal arts institution in Alabama.

“He’s been with us for about six or seven months,” said Will VanMeter, a former assistant to Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. “We’ll see where it leads.”

Will VanMeter is coming off the most successful year in his brief training career, setting highs for starts (81), victories (nine) and purse earnings ($355,294). He also recorded his first graded stakes victory when Arkansas-bred Trace Creek won the $100,000 Hanshin Cup (G3) May 21 at Arlington Park for owner/breeder John Ed Anthony of Hot Springs.

Unraced since August, VanMeter said Trace Creek is on a 60-day break and the hope is to “just trace our footsteps, per say, to do exactly what we did last year.”

Trace Creek, in his 2016 debut, finished fifth in an allowance race last March at Oaklawn before running fourth in the track’s $100,000 Arkansas Breeders’ Stakes three weeks later. Trace Creek won the 2015 Arkansas Breeders’ Stakes under the care of trainer Kenny McPeek.

VanMeter has a 3-year-old Arkansas-bred filly to watch in Dutch Parrot, fifth at odds of 46-1, in her Nov. 16 career debut at Churchill Downs.

Dutch Parrot, another homebred for Anthony’s Shortleaf Stable, is by Grade I winner Eskendereya. She was broken at Kentucky’s famed Stone Farm of Arthur Hancock, VanMeter said.

“We think she represents one of our better prospects, as far as younger horses are concerned,” VanMeter said.

Dutch Parrot is scheduled make her 2017 debut in a state-bred maiden sprint in Sunday’s sixth race. Oaklawn’s biggest race for 3-year-old Arkansas-bred fillies is the $100,000 Rainbow Miss Stakes April 1.

“She’s kind of got to prove herself against maidens first,” VanMeter said. “But of all my horses, I’m more thinking this is the horse that has the best chance to jump up and be that type of horse.”

VanMeter saddled his first career winner (Pearl Turn) March 14, 2014, at Oaklawn.

According to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization, VanMeter has 18 victories from 167 starts and purse earnings of $784,639 in his career.

Finish Lines

The track was fast for workouts Thursday morning. … The track will be open for training Friday – the first day of the scheduled 57-day meeting – from 7 a.m.-9 a.m. (Central), with no break to renovate the racing surface. … Multiple Oaklawn stakes-winning sprinter Ivan Fallunovalot worked 3 furlongs in :37 Thursday morning for trainer Tom Howard of Hot Springs, who is pointing the gelding for the $125,000 King Cotton Stakes Feb. 4. Ivan Fallunovalot won the King Cotton the last two years. … Churchill Downs maiden graduate Silver Dust, a 3-year-old Tapit colt, worked 5 furlongs in 1:00.60 after the second renovation break Thursday morning for trainer Randy Morse.Whitmore, third in last year’s $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1), is scheduled to make his 4-year-old debut in Sunday’s eighth race, a salty third-level allowance/optional claiming sprint for co-owner/trainer Ron Moquett of Hot Springs. Whitmore, unbeaten in three career starts sprinting, is scheduled to break from post 3 under Jose Ortiz, the country’s winningest rider last year. Multiple Oaklawn stakes winner Apprehender, Black Bear and W.B. Smudge are among seven other horses entered. Probable post time for the eighth race is 4:42 p.m. (Central).

 

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