Looking Back

April 16, 2013

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One thing was certain, going into the final week of the racing season, there would be lingering memories of the Racing Festival of the South and they are the kinds of memories which blot out a lot of what happened in the two previous months.

Now here we are, just a couple of days removed from the Racing Festival and the track is comparatively quiet.  The topic of conversation switched from Saturday’s spectacular racing card to the events surrounding the Boston Marathon and life goes on.

Simulcasting will resume here on Wednesday and our audio presentations from the DJ Booth will start up on Thursday. The very popular Twin Quin game will again highlight the Thursday programs for many of our fans and we will note the appearance of Oaklawn-raced horses a lot more over the next few weeks.

Overanalyze is a great name for a racehorse, since overanalyze is exactly what many times at the races.  Handicappers work the races hard, often overanalyzing.  I was proud to pick top horse/winners at a rate over 30%.  I’ve always thought that was the standard for handicappers.  It’s a lot like baseball, you need to bat .300 or better to be one of the best.  Batting .300 at Oaklawn has mostly been difficult, since the horses come from so many and varied circuits.  Of course, it gets a bit easier when certain owners, trainers and jockeys accomplish domination.  Eventually Midwest Thoroughbreds, trainer Steve Asmussen and jockey Ricardo Santana were the dominant factors, allowing handicappers to finish out in a flourish.  But not many put Overanalyze on top, especially following his disappointing race in the Gotham and the more recent failure of the Pletcher stock at Oaklawn.  However Overanalyze did everything right on Saturday and earned his trip to Churchill Downs and the Run For the Roses.  He now has been paired with Rafael Bejarano, a rider with a great record of success at Oaklawn.  I’d be surprised if they don’t finish near the top in their Kentucky Derby race. The prep was that good and so many of the other preps have left me dissatisfied.

However, it was not the win by Overanalyze which defined the day at Oaklawn nearly as much as the win by Cyber Secret in the Oaklawn Handicap.  When the presence of Fort Larned was announced for the Oaklawn Handicap, it appeared that the rest would be running for second money.  Never in recent years had a runner of such national prominence showed up for the Oaklawn Handicap.  The roster of Oaklawn Handicap participants includes the likes of Lawyer Ron, Peace Rules, Medaglia d’Oro, Cigar, Snow Chief, Turkoman, Wild Again and even Alydar.  None of those had gone postward at odds like the 1-2 which was associated with Fort Larned, thanks so much to his win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

This is a case of mighty Casey striking out.  Instead the win went to Oaklawn President Charles Cella’s Cyber Secret.  That colt, which had so impressively taken the older division by storm this season, was not just up to the challenge, but did so with élan, winning by a widening five-and-three-quarters lengths.  As the saying goes, he might have won by ten lengths had they gone around again.  There was plenty of speed in the race and that special talent of Fort Larned was minimized by the others blessed with similar abilities.  Fort Larned never made the lead and finished in the middle of the pack, not at all what was expected of one who talent had taken him to the top of his class.

Instead the party (or should be say, Cellabration) began.  The celebration continued for a lengthy time in the track’s board room and, presumably, in the adjacent Eighth Pole House, where Cella stays during the live meet.  For so long Charles Cella had worked to win one of the major races at the track his family built.  On Saturday over 66,000 were on hand in perfect weather conditions, setting an ideal stage for the Cella win.  Cella has won important races and honors previously.  His Northern Spur won the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Turf and subsequently was awarded the Eclipse Award as the country’s outstanding turf runner.  Cella’s family and Oaklawn received an Eclipse Award following the centennial season, 2004, for its contributions to the game.  But Cella had never enjoyed the honor of winning one of the big races at his own track.  He has helped so many horsemen, that his success was overdue.  Charles was humbled by the occasion, needing to make sure the horse got the credit.  But truly, following on so many contributions Charles Cella has made to horsemen and racing, the Oaklawn Handicap win was earned by man and horse. 

There have been other great Oaklawn Handicaps, but those of us who were lucky enough to be at Oaklawn on Saturday are more likely to remember this one than other Oaklawn Handicaps and even the other races which were run on that day.  There were other great performances for the enormous crowd on that afternoon, but Cyber Secret was the hero of the day – the representative of the local corps who handed defeat to the invaders.  It wasn’t expected, but it was well-received.

The win by Cyber Secret  trumped many of the other terrific parts of what made this such a standout Racing Festival.  I’ve seen almost all of the Festivals and don’t ever remember two of the major races won by horses coming off long layoffs. 

That happened this year when Friday’s double feature, the Instant Racing and the Apple Blossom Handicap, both went to runners off long layoffs.  Blueeyesintherein had not run since last June when she won the second of her two races prior to Friday’s Instant Racing.    One race later, On Fire Baby, who hadn’t raced since a fourth place finish in Belmont Park’s Acorn Stakes, last May, went to the lead entering the first turn and proceeded to lead every jump for her first win since Oaklawn’s Honeybee, last March.  The irony was that jockey Joe Johnson was handed a three-day suspension for his winning ride aboard On Fire Baby, but the gray four-year-old became the third offspring of her dam, Ornate, to win a stakes at Oaklawn.  Prior to that win High Heels had won the 2007 Fantasy Stakes and French Kiss, the 2009 Pippin.  Rarely have we seen such dominance of a division by a matriarchal influence, but there is no question that Ornate has left her mark on Oaklawn racing.  For what it’s worth, there is a maiden sister to all of these who will be racing at Churchill Downs.  She is called Shoe Queen.  It’s hard to imagine one with so much pedigree will remain a maiden for long.

For me personally the Dawn at Oaklawn program was fun all week, headlined by Friday’s edition which featured appearances by both Calvin Borel and Jack Van Berg.  Van Berg was able to be with us both Friday and Saturday and was able to sign his biography, “Jack Van Berg, from Grit to Glory."  The author, Chris Kotulak, was along and also signed copies of the book.  Needless to say, they sold a bunch and Van Berg was at his best.  Both Borel and Van Berg established themselves long ago in the racing world, so it was a treat to have both of them on hand.  The other guests for the week, Donnie K. Von Hemel, Zoe Cadmen, and Aaron Vercrussye, were all good.  They helped cap off a great week for the morning program, which also included stable area tours well received by the many who took the time to board the available busses.  We certainly had the Westrock Coffee, our Little Rock-based sponsors, to thank for helping make the program so popular.  It’s always a joy to participate in something good.  It was for me in this case.

This blog will continue on through the simulcast season as we observe the happenings in this great sport through the other meets.  We set some standards for others to admire, but it will take some important changes for many of the other tracks to approach what has been accomplished here at Oaklawn.  When you look back and size up all the accomplishments, you realize that Oaklawn is a star in the sky of racing and I’m so pleased to be part of this team.        

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