By Jonathan Stettin
Two things happen in the Sport of Kings every January, The Eclipse Awards, and the focus on three year olds earning their spots on the Kentucky Derby trail. We all know a Derby winner can come from almost anywhere, and the royals of racing have watched many a modest racehorse capture the roses, outrunning bluebloods, the offspring of blue hens and the best bloodlines money can’t buy. Ah, the underdog, one of the great things about both life and sports.
Here we are in early January and the Gulfstream Park, Fair Grounds, and Santa Anita meets are all underway, and we are all watching for that special three-year-old to emerge. Aqueduct is looking for that special three-year old as well, with the inner track winter meet in full swing. Despite eye catching performances by Cherry Wine for Dale Romans, Mohaymen for Kieran McLaughlin, and Nyquist being an undefeated Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner for Doug O’Neil, it just seems possible this year that the Derby winner has not yet cast himself into the primetime spotlight. We’ll just have to watch, wait, and see.
While those four tracks are in full swing, we can add another to the mix this week, that history says has just as good a chance of producing a Kentucky Derby winner as any of the others. Maybe even more so. Oaklawn Park opens Friday, weather permitting, with as much optimism as any racing venue, and with good reason.
If you have a passion for the game, and have been around it a while, there are certain racetracks that just have a feel to them when you walk in. It’s kind of like walking into history and the past, as well as the future, all at the same time. It’s just a feeling, as if you know great sport, drama, and competition have occurred there. I don’t think my words do it justice, but some of you will know the feeling I am referring too. Saratoga has it, perhaps like no other, Del Mar has it, Keeneland has it, Santa Anita has it as does Belmont. Oaklawn definitely has it. While it may not get the recognition I feel it deserves, Oaklawn is a special venue and you feel it when you walk in the door. Greatness has occurred there, and I am talking about long before American Pharoah glided around that dirt strip, turning three races at over three miles of horse racing, into having to run about a total of 100 yards.
I had the opportunity to spend three or four meets, not that long ago, in the VIP section of Oaklawn Park. I met some sharp players and made some good friends. I learned a lot about the place and its history. One of the unique things about the venue is their diligence in maintaining their history and that of the game itself, while at the same time modernizing and adapting to the game as it is today. I like that. I like keeping the history part intact. It preserves what we love. I think the quote attributed to sportswriter Red Smith describes it best when talking about Saratoga. “From New York City you drive north about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue, and go back 100 years.” The directions to Oaklawn differ somewhat. From New York City drive 1,282 miles southwest, turn right on Central Avenue, and go back 100 years.
The town of Hot Springs has a colorful history including New Yorkers long before myself, making their way down there to enjoy the gambling, atmosphere, and of course The Hot Springs and baths. Al Capone summered there as did may other colorful characters. It’s surely worth reading up on the town. One of the things I loved about it is there was no negative stigma attached to horse racing or going to watch and bet on the races at all. In many places if you call in sick to go to the racetrack you will be considered a degenerate. Not Hot Springs. It’s expected and accepted. The whole town revolves around the meet.
While guarding history the track has made many innovations. They have added a top class casino, as far as racetrack casinos go. They have successfully utilized casino revenue to increase purses to the upper echelon of the sport. They’ve consistently tried to attract new and high profile barns to their program through large purses and incentives. They have added wagers. They have hired a new announcer in Peter Aiello. Peter is an up and coming younger announcer with a bright future at his craft. He calls races with his own unique style, and a great deal of enthusiasm. Now I can say from experience, some of the hardcore southerners will have to get used to Peter’s style and accent, but if they got used to mine he’ll be a piece of cake. Some people couldn’t even understand me when I arrived and I’d been in Florida and out of Brooklyn 20 years when I got there. Ultimately I’m sure Peter will be embraced. Especially after he calls his first stretch battle.
Now back to that Derby prospect we are looking for. The timing, distances, and similarity between their surface and that of Churchill Downs make Oaklawn a great place to get a three-year old ready for the run for the roses. That path produced the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years and Bob Baffert, who gets em ready for the classics as good as anyone, almost annually preps there. Smarty Jones, who fell short to Birdstone in the Belmont but won the Derby and Preakness wintered and prepped there as did many others. Maybe that’s where the three-year old we’re looking for will emerge. Oaklawn also almost featured one of the most hotly debated races and disputes in modern racing history. A race that would have been epic and remembered forever. The one we all wanted to see, Rachel Alexandra vs Zenyatta. Unfortunately, Rachel couldn’t make it and Zenyatta took her second Apple Blossom. Female Horse of the Year Azeri raced around that track along with so many other greats.
The wagering opportunities are plentiful as well. The pick 6 pool builds up pretty nicely after a few days of not being hit and it is a $1 wager. That helps smaller players get more coverage and also avoids the jackpot format some players don’t like. There are also less syndicates and the like going after it. You can snake one if you are lucky. They have big fields with some good sized pools especially on their big days, and those things should continue to improve with their purse structure and recruitment of more trainers. Like all tracks this time of year there are more than a fair share of cheaper races, but that’s how racing is today especially during winter. Dave Longinotti and Jason Milligan are both knowledgeable and passionate about the game and do a great job running the place with both players and horseman in the forefront. They brought back a no Lasix incentive program for NON bleeders which I think is a great and innovative idea.
Shined Up Chrome
As any good car detailer knows old Chrome shines up and polishes pretty well. California Chrome is no different. He looks as if he has emerged from his much needed freshening all the better for it. With his new silks sans, the Dumbass logo, California Chrome took the San Pasqual with ease as he was supposed to do. He’d already proven he was better and faster than what he faced last Saturday but he did it in easy stylish fashion. As I had the pleasure of discussing with Gino Buccola and Corey Black while we did the recap of the race for Elite Racing Network, I thought the return was perfect, as it got this horse that has a lot of heart, a much needed in my opinion, confidence builder. We also noted how refreshing it is to have a five-year-old Kentucky Derby winner, who is not a gelding running in today’s times. It’s reported he is heading back for Dubai later this month for a second shot at the Dubai World Cup.
I’ve always said and felt campaigning a horse and picking the right spots was an art. Part of being a master at your craft. If I was fortunate enough to own California Chrome, he wouldn’t be heading to Dubai. I’d pick out a nice easy campaign for him right here in the states, focused on having him fresh and peaking for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, run this year over his favorite strip, Santa Anita. Why risk all those miles to the desert, taking him off Lasix, having to freshen him again after the race? Even the best of them only have so many in the tank.
This week’s high five goes to the outrider who caught Fielding Gold, a three-year-old trained by the always dangerous John Toscano, who dropped Jacky Davis and got loose. Disaster avoided by this great save captured on film. Horse and rider both OK so high fives to them as well. While on the subject a high five to John Toscano and his team. They are a very sharp barn and do a great job.
In a scenario better suited for a recent column called Hosed Again, this week’s low five goes to Gulfstream Park. I’m not even going to bother checking the official rules, it doesn’t matter what they say. After the pick 4 begins in the 8th race they take the remaining scheduled turf races off the turf. We all know we have to live with that at times. The problem was announcer Larry Collmus had previously announced main track only entrant Leanne N Susan was scratched. After the race comes off the turf it turned into the Wizard of Oz scene, ignore that man behind the curtain, Leanne N Susan is running. The scratch was a mistake. They unscratched a scratched horse. You’d need a pretty long list to say in how many ways this is unfair to bettors and other owners and trainers. That list would be even longer had the horse won or finished in the money.