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When this is over, one of the good memories will be how Oaklawn Park, Hot Springs, Arkansas, rolled with the punches and singularly crafted American Thoroughbred horse racing on a festival level when horseplayers and even other gamblers appreciated it most.
Sure, cookies crumbled a certain way, including the Kentucky Derby being knocked flat on its ass, but Oaklawn found a way to extend its meet with, by the way, real horse racing. Right here and now, lets celebrate Oaklawn.
Oaklawn, firmly but gently, has either valiantly stepped up to, or hijacked, depending on your outlook, the first Saturday in May to run its Arkansas Derby. Magnanimously and inclusively, the race, which has been a major prep for the Louisville spectacle, split into two divisions this year, so that the best 3-year-olds may break from the smallish starting gate.
Now, it's here.
The dirt-only track will run 10 races Friday and 14 more on Saturday. Even with its casino closed, Oaklawn has put up the dough for very respectable purses. The weather is looking good.
Ricardo Santana, Jr. (57 wins), Martin Garcia (53) and Joe Talamo (52) are in a fierce battle for the jockey title.
TrackNotes will kick off with a stakes-sprinkled Friday, including the Arkansas Breeders' Championship and the Gardenia.
Your feature is the Fantasy Stakes (Grade III, three-year-old fillies, 8.5 furlongs, 1-1/16 miles, $400,000), built to rival any Kentucky Oaks.
Many of the horses are shipping in, so you'll have to study the workout tabs to see if they've trained here.
Two-to-one morning liner Venetian Harbor, winner way back on Feb. 8 of the Grade II Las Virgenes at Santa Anita, will square off against 5-2 British Idiom, Place horse in the prep-for-this Rachel Alexandra a week after that. Like weighing tomatoes one in each hand, 'Harbor has the Beyer Speed Figures, 92 and 94 by daylight in her last two. 'Idiom, while considerably slower in the Beyer department, shows more class after Grade I wins in the Alcibiades and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies(!). She had a flat-footed start for maybe an excuse in the Rachel.
Keep an eye on Harvey's Lil Goil, daughter of American Pharoah, whose 12-1 ML won't be sustained, captain. Swiss Skydiver shows the eye-catching Beyer jump up, and inconsistent Lake Avenue has a chance. Once again, monitor the tote board for all of these.
Back at it Saturday, first post high noon.
The Arkansas Derby Division I (Grade I, three-year-olds, 9 furlongs, 1-1/8 miles, $500,000) posts at 5:29, with rookie freak Charlatan, the Bob Baffert trainee, the even-money favorite, if it stays that high.
With 105-106 Beyers in only two races, the son of Speightstown would not have qualified for this race, earnings-wise, but got in on the split. But, man. In races the horse seems green, crafting big leads and then drifting to and fro in the stretch. Baffert seems to have used his workouts to get race-like conditioning, with drills at distances of six or seven furlongs in his last four. He starts from the one post, with plenty of run-up to the turn.
Who beats him? Probably nobody. Gouverneur and Anneau d'Or are the next two favorites, but they would have to have installed turbochargers to get the speed. You'll need a lot of faith in Anneau' who, while a respectable second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile has gone only once, his first maiden special weight. He bombed in a division of the split Rebel Stakes at Fair Grounds.
If you're taking a flyer, look at the 11, Basin. After being waylaid by the Oaklawn slop in his last two, he'll run a fast Hot Springs track for the first time, with Oaklawn-savvy Steve Asmussen training and hot jock Santana up. Process of elimination, he won't break at his 8-1 morning line.
The Oaklawn Handicap (Grade II, four year olds and up, 9 furlongs, 1-1/8 miles, $600,000) contains some familiar names: Bravazo, Mr Freeze, Combatant, Tacitus, Tax, By My Standards and Improbable. Problem is, none of them seems in particularly great form. These guys have broken a lot of hearts, including mine.
Combatant is the 4-1 favorite, rightfully, third off the layoff and a win in the Santa Anita Handicap last out. He's also done well at Oaklawn. Tacitus and By My Standards are next at 9-2, with standards having the edge after a win in the New Orleans Classic last out. Improbable has seconditis in three races at Oaklawn, but at least he has the experience. Despite handfuls of triple-digit Beyers, Mr Freeze is getting only lukewarm respect at 6-1. Look at 20-1 Identifier. Winner of his last two, including the Grade III Hal's Hope, he sports a 78-to-93 Beyer jump up. Don't tell anybody.
This race will be a case where some handicappers will bet by name recognition, so watch the board.
Baffert's Nadal will lead the Arkansas Derby Division II, post time 6:43. At 5-2, he's just ahead of King Guillermo and Wells Bayou. This should be the race of the day.
Nadal was gutsy in holding on for the win in the prep for this, the Rebel, in the slop. He commutes back from Santa Anita, where he's been throwing strong workouts.
Wells Bayou is the horse for the course of these three, being edged here in the slop in the Southwest and coming back to win the Louisiana Derby. You'll have to look two back for Silver Prospector who won the Southwest here on a dry track. He's experienced at Oaklawn. Storm the Court should also compete. Farmington Road was the victim of 46-1 Mr. Big News in the Oaklawn Stakes April 11. He closed admirably along with 'News to get that, but he'll need big improvement.
NBCSportsNet will, ugh, simulcast TVG Friday from 3 p.m. - 6 p.m. You'll see the improvement Saturday on a very full day of racing on FoxSports1, noon - 7 p.m.
I'll enjoy this First Saturday in May for the first time in years.
Oaklawn is about the racing.
Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcome your comments.
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