Go To the Head of the Class

Jan. 20, 2014

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Developments over this weekend are helping sort out the contenders from the pretenders and are quite helpful for the players at the track.  On Saturday night the Eclipse Awards presentation presented no surprises, with D. Wayne Lukas receiving a lifetime achievement award and the now 4-year-old Will Take Charge earning honors as the 3-year-old champion of 2013.  Clearly, Will Take Charge was something of a surprise to Oaklawn followers, in spite of the fact that he won two stakes, the Smarty Jones and Rebel. He didn’t contest the Arkansas Derby.  The Lukas barn opted for Oxbow in that race and justified that selection when Oxbow went on to win the Preakness. 

Will Take Charge entered the picture during the summer months when he followed a good second in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga with a somewhat surprising win in the Travers, called the Midsummer Derby by many.  He followed that up with a nice, closing win  in the Pennsylvania Derby.  What cinched his crown was his narrow loss in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to Mucho Macho Man, followed by a win over older rivals in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs.  Since the 3-year-old class lacked a multiple Grade I  winner, it was an easy choice to pick Will Take Charge.  Memories of his disappointing races earlier in the year had disappeared, as well as the fact that he failed to hit the board in any of the Triple Crown races, although he tried them all.  The fact remains that he is the champion and he is living here at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs.  He is likely to race here again this year and will not be a long price when he does.

But this is the weekend when we try to get a handle on the three-year-old crop, headed by Monday’s Smarty Jones Stakes, a mile-and-a-sixteenth event with a nice purse of $150,000.  This race was the start of the year for Will Take Charge just 12 months ago and the winner can only hope that some of the same will occur.  There were a few nominated which are not contesting this race and waiting for the Southwest  on February 17.  That list includes Strong Mandate, Dunkin Bend, Boji Moon, Bourbonize and Ride on Curlin, the latter two making an impression on opening at Oaklawn.  The first three mentioned are all open stakes winners and their maturity in the interim will go a long way to determining what happens to their Triple Crown hopes.

I remember some of that factor being significant when I was younger.  We played football when I was in grade school and we played against a team with a very much larger guy, whom we couldn’t handle.  We always expected him to go on to greatness.  What happened was that he was an early developer and never did get much bigger.  He was just an okay high school player and I don’t think he competed in college.  I also see the difference in pro ball where sometimes the guys who appeared to be sure things when they stepped from high school to college and from college to the pros, never made it.  Arkansas football fans from a year ago were sure that quarterback Tyler Wilson was a big star.   He never played a down for a pro team this year, although there were many in desperate need of a quarterback and he was always out there.’

So it happens that the best of the 2-year-old class doesn’t always pan out as one of the leaders the next year.  We’ve  seen that happen more in recent years as there has been such an emphasis on 2-year-old racing and the precocious ones come to the fore, even though they often falter a year later, when most in racing feel that they need to be ready.  So much has been made of the Triple Crown that the emphasis on 2-year-olds has often skewed what will happen when horses go through that growth spurt which is often more evident in humans.

Therefore, the results of Monday’s feature will help find some who have matured well, even though they don’t show the awesome performances of some of those who will not be seen until the Southwest .  In a sense Monday’s Smarty Jones plays an important role in that it provides us a better look into the future and puts together some of those which have grown up while we weren’t looking.

In recent years I’ve been more convinced that the pursuit of the Triple Crown, for all its marketing magic, fails to provide the best of the crop.  Not since Secretariat’s dominance and the exciting races between Affirmed and Alydar have we had a great Triple Crown.  Even the 2004 pursuit of the crown by Smarty Jones turned into a downer when he was caught in the late stages of the Belmont Stakes.  Horses like Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Curlin, Arkansas Derby winners which looked so strong early, all headed off to the breeding shed before the racing season ended.

The next most popular horse to race at Oaklawn was Zenyatta, a mare who didn’t even make her first start until December of her 3-year-old campaign.  We were honored that her first two sojourns out of California were to Oaklawn Park for the Apple Blossom Handicap. She easily won both and her bows to the public at her introduction in 2010 have become part of Oaklawn legend.  Her Oaklawn win in 2010 was the 15th in a row for the “Gentle Giant” mare, a streak which  ended at 19 when she suffered her only loss, by a diminishing nose to Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  That was her only other trip outside of California.  The Breeders’ Cup that year was at Churchill Downs.

I’ve always admired Oaklawn owner, Charles Cella, and his decision to do away with 2-year-old racing at Oaklawn.  It’s a decision which makes more sense as we see the 3-year-old classes fail to produce the great runner.  I’m hopeful that this turns into a great season for Will Take Charge, if it only serves to show that it makes sense not to push horses too hard.

From this corner, I’m also hopeful that Monday’s Smarty Jones is once again won by a runner who will be around for a while and take advantage of the fact that he has not been asked for too much too soon.

For those of the opinion that D. Wayne Lukas has been too hard on his horses, Will Take Charge has a chance to be the poster child of how Lukas has changed with the times.  They both belong at the head of their class.                                  

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