ANTICIPATION

Sept. 3, 2013

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The past weekend was a good one for Oaklawn fans.  Such popular Oaklawn jockeys as Calvin Borel, Ricardo Santana, Rosemary Homeister, Jr. and Jenna Joubert were winners.  Trainers like Steve Hobby, Steve Asmussen and D. Wayne Lukas were winners.  Judging from the noise of the crowds on hand over the holiday weekend, there were many of those backed by the folks on hand.
Especially a pair likely to make their presence known at the live meet at Oaklawn in 2004, Dunkin Bend and Strong Mandate.

Let’s first talk about Dunkin Bend, owned by an Arkansan, Mike Langford, who makes Jonesboro his home, but keeps a strong presence at Oaklawn during the live meet.  Mike has raced many horses at Oaklawn, finishing third in the Arkansas Derby this year with his $30,000 claim, Carve, which was handled by Steve Asmussen.  You may remember that Langford’s stock for years was trained by Randy Morse.  They have parted ways over the last season and just in time for Asmussen to get his hands on Dunkin Bend, a son of the suddenly popular stallion, Dunkirk. On Sunday, he won the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth, a race which was for many years considered a real measure of a top two-year-old heading into his Triple Crown year.  That has changed recently and Dunkin Bend won in a field of four, two trained by Monmouth regular trainer Eddie Plesa.  Still Dunkin Bend does have that win, an impressive one, on his resume and would be a standout among those coming to Oaklawn for live 2014 were it not for the likely presence of Strong Mandate.

Strong Mandate comes from the barn of trainer D. Wayne Lukas, about whom I wrote a lengthy diatribe in this space just a week ago.

I think it’s abundantly clear that the speculation that the end was near for the career of Lukas has been grossly exaggerated.  On Monday, Lukas turned 78 years old and celebrated it with his seventh win in the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga, the race which is the crowning glory for two-year-olds at this stage of their career.

Strong Mandate didn’t just win.  He won by nearly ten lengths.  Now, he did win on a muddy track.  That could mean that he’s a “mudder”, with a serious liking for the mud.  Or, it could mean the others in the field hated the going, which will almost certainly be heard in the post mortems of trainers in the rest of the field of ten.

A couple of names of horses which won the Hopeful Stakes pop up in research.  One is Dublin, a Lukas trainee who finished second in the Southwest Stakes and third in the Arkansas Derby.  The other is the sire of Dublin, Afleet Alex, who won both the Mountain Valley and Arkansas Derby, setting a record winning the Derby by eight lengths (that record was eclipsed two years later when Curlin won by 10 ½ lengths). Afleet Alex, who was unlucky in the Kentucky Derby when finishing third, put on a show in both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, winning both in impressive fashion. Many of us feel he was the most talented horse to ever race at Oaklawn. Zenyatta is obviously in that discussion.

The only irony here is that Curlin was trained by Steve Asmussen, who has the chance to steal the show in 2014 at Oaklawn with Dunkin Bend and that would be no surprise. With horses like Dunkin Bend and Strong Mandate as the base of the local three-year-old crop, there is plenty of anticipation for the series of races for that group.  Of course other tracks will attempt to invade Oaklawn and get those horses away.  Likewise, Oaklawn will try to make sure they are on hand for the series at our track in Hot Springs. 

Of course, there will always be the late developers with hopes for Triple Crown success.  Bu,t it was sure a treat to see Lukas, who has many detractors in the game, enjoy such important success at Saratoga, which closed its doors on the 2013 live season on Monday afternoon.  Lukas won the two major prizes of the season, the Travers with Will Take Charge and Monday’s Hopeful with Strong Mandate.  We have been pleased to be the winter/spring home for the Lukas string for a number of years and will be excited to see his return. Knowing Lukas, however, it’s hard to imagine that he will pass on the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile for Strong Mandate.  Lukas has had many champions in his barn and he would like nothing better for Strong Mandate.  A win in that race would virtually cinch that title.  Of course Lukas is not done yet with Will Take Charge and there is certain to be more on the docket for that three-year-old as well.  If they are going to be racing in 2014, Oaklawn would be the right spot.

By the way, pedigree means plenty in racing. Strong Mandate comes out of one of the best mares to ever be bred, Clear Mandate. She won over $1 million on the racetrack and produced multiple stakes horses before she passed away in 2011.  She had just foaled Strong Mandate, prior to her death, and the farm manager where she was living tabbed Strong Mandate “a dandy” even as a young foal.  He could never has been more far-sighted.

Racing always has its ironies and one of those occurred on Monday at Parx, the former Philadelphia Park.  The feature on the card was the Smarty Jones Stakes, named for a horse who needs no introduction to Oaklawn fans or racing fans from coast-to-coast, for that matter.  The race was won by a locally-fancied horse named Edge of Reality, ridden by Stewart Elliott, who was the regular pilot for Smarty Jones himself.  In winning the race Edge of Reality was defeating horses trained by such big names in racing as Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen, Kenny McPeek and Shug McGaughey.  There was some beauty in Elliott getting the trophy following that race and I’m only sorry that the trainer wasn’t John Servis, who was so instrumental in the success of Smarty.

This was a memorable weekend in simulcast racing for those of us with Oaklawn ties.  As great as the stakes results were, I was equally happy when trainer Steve Hobby saddled L’Air Du Temps to win the final race of the day at Arlington.  I had bad visions that the four-year-old daughter of Smoke Glacken might be one of those unlucky enough to “die a maiden." She showed some courage in rallying to just get up for the win and now I imagine we’ll see her in 2014 at Oaklawn as well.

Can you tell I’m getting enthused for 2014 at Oaklawn? The anticipation is raising my heartbeat.                      

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