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With big-time sports standing on its head, the first Saturday in May roars upon us.
This year, it won't be Kentucky Derby Day. Instead, Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, will be the center of the horse racing universe. I couldn't be happier, not once, but twice.
Oaklawn has announced that it will split its Arkansas Derby into two races. Its starting gate only accommodating 14 horses, prominent three-year-olds, with nowhere else to go, would have been left out. The sort is made according to earnings to date, so Bob Baffert's wonderful Charlatan would have had to watch the simulcast instead of saddling up. Baffert's Nadal, perhaps the best young colt in the land, will probably run in the other race.
Why am I so happy? There's lots to love.
Sure, Oaklawn and the Cella family dived in to the casino biz full boat, but when you walk into the track, you can't even see the casino and you head past the indoor paddock/saddling area into a big-enough cozy concourse with floors so clean you could eat off them. The ladies in the ticket booths will find you the best box they have - almost all seats are indoors - very much like Hawthorne Race Course. The beer is cold and the food pretty good. Track workers are truly friendly.
The Cella family has demonstrably nurtured racing since 1907, when Louis Cella took over from his partners and had to contend with the moral indecision of spooked politicians. Evil hootch wasn't the only thing the Prohibitionists attacked.
The track features, simply, a one-mile dirt track and no turf course. It famously is known for its connections with Chicago, whether it be our local horses wintering there or mobsters, including Al Capone, enjoying the track and the spas of the springs.
History has been made there. The wonderful fillies Azeri and Zenyatta romped about in the Apple Blossom Stakes. The big prep for the Blossom is The Azeri Stakes. Arkansas Derby winners have included super horse American Pharoah, Curlin, Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones, Lawyer Ron, Elocutionist, Super Chief and Sunny's Halo.
In the past, the Cellas have offered cash bonuses, when the game needed it, to a horse who could win both the Arkansas and the Kentucky Derbies.
Churchill Downs Inc. arbitrarily moved the Kentucky Derby to September 5 without consulting anyone. What makes it think bringing 100,000+ people to the track will be safe then?
Praise Jesus, CDI president Kevin Flanery bestowed the blessing upon Oaklawn's May 2 festivities. "Our prominent partner in Oaklawn Park is in a unique and important position . . . " blah blah blah. The partnership is merely for wagering, and why can't your website spell Oaklawn's name correctly?
Oaklawn has been nearly invisible on racing channel TVG is recent years, showing only stakes races on delay. TVG licks the boots of The Stronach Group's Santa Anita and Gulfstream. Arlington Park is invisible too.
But with limited racing - Tampa Bay is also featured on the FoxSports feed - the boys and girls on the desk have been able to tell some great stories.
Especially Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who talked about the time he lit out after a heckling fan in the stands. We all know horseplayers often bitch about the riders.
"My mother said it was difficult to sit in the stands. She said 'That's my son, you know.' This guy was really obnoxious, so I took off after him. I caught him in the first mezzanine (at Santa Anita) and all of a sudden, the jocks' security guard, who is a friend of mine, grabbed my silks by the back of the neck and said 'What in THE HELL are you doing?' I had a temper back then."
As the TV analyst, trainer Tom Amoss, was getting closer to his Serengeti Empress in the gate for the Apple Blossom, anchor Laffit Pincay III asked him if he was nervous.
"Well, the image of Ted Stryker in Airplane! comes to mind, trying to land the plane."
Amoss fired back, "I guess I picked a bad day to quit sniffing glue."
Sunday, after a photo finish, Stevens and Pincay opined on one of the photo jockeys dismounting and the other staying up.
"I never did that," Stevens said. "If I lost the photo, I wouldn't want to be in the saddle if the other horse won, it would be embarrassing."
Pincay stated how jockeys can be very superstitious.
"There was never anybody more like that than your father."
That would be Laffit Pinacy Jr.
Pincay was one of the all-time greats, with 9,530 wins, third on the list. He rode legends such as Affirmed, three straight Derby winners with Swale, Conquistador Cielo and Caveat. And Secretariat's main rival, Sham; John Henry, the Steel Drivin' Horse; Genuine Risk, Bayakoa, Caveat, Chinook Pass and Cougar II.
"My father wore his underwear inside out for at least 15 years. He was in a tough spot once and turned his t-shirt inside out. Whatever it took," Pincay III said.
I've had some fun years in racing, but as a TV consumer, this one has been great. The analysts have had time to tell the stories. Horsey Airlines has made Hot Springs a hub.
I hold out hope that Churchill Downs will be eating mass quantities of instant karma for its inherently selfish ways. It appears the twin spires don't own Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, like they did his predecessor and currently by Moscow Mitch.
But we won't have to worry about CDI for now.
For one more week, the stage lanterns light up Oaklawn Park.
They earned it.
Sunday, FoxSports1 was playing pretend with real NASCAR drivers playing a Talladega video game of a stock car race, which was just as fixed and boring as a real race. I was waiting for the switchover to horse racing.
Jeff Gordon was in the pits, having his car "fixed." Everybody involved was behaving as if it was a real race. OK, cup of tea and all that.
But the race ran long! They shuttled me to FoxSports2 for the horses in order to finish the last few car laps.
I've never played a home video game in my life, so imagine how compelling today's "stock car" race was for me. I remember when you could buy the 440 Hemi Monday that you saw Petty run Sunday.
Yes. It was a video game.
Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.
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