Oaklawn followers have a lot to have fun


This is not the column that I anticipated to write down early this week after I scanned the nominations for the Fantasy Stakes and didn’t see Will’s Secret’s title.

Absolutely, with two stakes wins at Oaklawn and an Arkansas proprietor (Willis Horton of Marshall), the homebred 3-year-old filly would stick round for the Fantasy Stakes, which final yr produced winners of the Kentucky Oaks and Preakness.

To not fear. Checking with the proprietor, I discovered that in addition to sending his steady star to Keeneland for a Grade 1 race, Horton would take a look at the waters within the Fantasy with a last-out maiden winner. For each Rachel Alexandra that has received the race, the stage is open additionally to a Take Cost Lorin.

With considerably extra chagrin, I learn that Keepmeinmind, thought of an early contender for the Arkansas Derby, wouldn’t run within the April 10 race at Oaklawn. However, who is aware of? Important High quality, who has crushed Robertino Diodoro’s horse twice, won’t have each screw tightened for his final Kentucky Derby prep. Though no Blue Grass winner since 1991 has gone to a better, Strike the Gold, like Diodoro’s horse, did his greatest operating late.

Issues started to clear with Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s midweek declaration about eradicating masks in Arkansas, a harbinger that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be loosening in different states.

Then got here Friday and the opening day at Keeneland and all was proper within the commonwealth of Kentucky.

After a yr that racing was affected extra within the Bluegrass than maybe another area, the spring meet in Lexington, Ky., 2-year-olds and all, was again in full swing.

Holding the Blue Grass Stakes in July and the Kentucky Derby in September final yr appeared, effectively, unpatriotic. Could not be helped in a yr that the Preakness went off in October, ending a Triple Crown sequence that included a shortened Belmont. Hey, the coronavirus turned a marketing campaign concern with even the sitting president affected.

Though crowds had been restricted due to the pandemic, and acquiring media credentials was an virtually draconian course of even for Kentucky retailers, Keeneland was open for enterprise Friday. Additional proof comes with in the present day’s card highlighted by the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes and the Central Financial institution Ashland, last preps for older, extra storied races (Derby, Oaks) down the street at Churchill Downs in Louisville.

Eddie Donnally, an ex-jockey turned Eclipse Award-winning author, stated within the Oaklawn press field in the future {that a} Keeneland go to is the closest European expertise one will get in American racing. This, in spite of everything, is a monitor that thought of its patrons so horse-wise that for years it didn’t make use of an announcer, pondering followers might sustain with their favorites via binoculars and with out an overhead information.

A 2019 go to to Keeneland, the place I took in opening weekend of the autumn meet, proved an virtually spiritual expertise. Having trainers Shug McGaughey and Mark Casse aboard an outgoing flight from Charlotte, N.C., and jockey Mike Smith on a return hop to Dallas had been rewarding sufficient.

As soon as pulling in off Versailles Street, one thing the late Kim Brazzel, a horse-playing turf author, instructed me years in the past at Oaklawn rang true: There’s a distinction between races and racing.

With a pal, I watched future champion filly British Idiom win the Alcibiades and the following day, my jaw dropped when Maxfield received the Breeders’ Futurity. That neither ran for better glory at Churchill Downs the following yr mattered not.

Not everybody within the crowd was a “swell,” because the expression goes. Ready for her boyfriend, a younger woman I met outdoors the paddock requested if American Pharaoh had any of his first foals operating that day. She might have checked this system she was holding, however by no means thoughts.

Though from Georgia, which has no thoroughbred racing, she expressed an curiosity in The Best Sport and wished to pursue a profession within the sport as soon as her research finish on the College of Kentucky. She has, it could appear, the identical racing DNA as a younger woman from Memphis who stop a job at Graceland and spent two years within the Racing Trade Improvement Program on the College of Arizona and now works for a racing web site.

Shayna, my Georgia pal, is now a UK junior. Though basketball within the Bluegrass — certainly all through Kentuckiana — has fallen off, racing continues to be half and parcel of being a Kentuckian. A lot that an Ohio native who lives in Lexington calls Kentucky-bred horses her “brothers and sisters.”

What does this should do with Oaklawn, you ask? Simply that whereas this will likely not probably the most stellar Fantasy area assembled, this can be a racetrack to rank with the nation’s greatest.

That even when Important High quality didn’t keep over for a second native race, we should always really feel blessed to have had the unbeaten male juvenile champion for the Southwest. To see Monomoy’s Lady, in her Oaklawn debut at age 6, take the Bayakoa was akin to watching Zenyatta (completely satisfied 17th birthday, Large Mama) win the Apple Blossom Handicap twice.

Already, we’ve seen the next-out Dubai World Cup winner (Mystic Information) take the Razorback Handicap and Live performance Tour, within the Insurgent, remind us afresh that we’re mere spectators in Bob Baffert’s racing universe.

The one downside one can find is a digital monopoly by what one horseman calls “company attorneys,” three males that you could possibly have boxed opening day in a trainers-race trifecta. Sadly, some outstanding horsemen whose names could be immediately recognizable to many readers if listed right here haven’t received a race, their barns lowered to poverty ranges.

Racing, regardless of its flaws, retains luring us again, the bugler’s sound as acquainted to its followers as “Oh, say, are you able to see” to the common American. The hope right here is that extra of us with disposable cash will enter the game. Cheers to Danny Caldwell, Mike Sisk, Staton Flurry and Jerry Caroom for displaying us into the longer term whereas we will nonetheless thank John Ed Anthony for giving us Temperence Hill and, now, Caddo River.

The late Chick Lang Jr., taken from us a lot too quickly, got here to like Scorching Springs and Oaklawn whereas serving as Oaklawn’s operations director, a job first held by Eric Jackson. His household joined on the hip to Maryland racing, Chick had a sound chew for the ages when the American Graded Stakes Committee, like a scorekeeper marking down a basket for the unsuitable participant, lowered the Apple Blossom Handicap from Grade 1 to Grade 2.

That dizzying resolution was quickly corrected — the Apple Blossom, just like the Arkansas Derby, was restored to Grade 1 — however not earlier than Lang noticed, “All of our races are Grade A.”

Oaklawn followers might by no means see one other yr like 2020, when in impact it had the entire racing present to itself for a stretch, dealing with $41 million on Arkansas Derby Day. However after they’re throwing six-figure purses at Arkansas-bred horses on weekdays, I would not fear in regards to the high quality of the racing program.

Anticipate to listen to the same old conflict of cymbals as one other Oaklawn season goes into the books. Any present diminuendo on Central Avenue will change right into a crescendo quickly sufficient.

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