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TrackNotes: Racing In A Time Of Coronavirus

The sports world, like the rest of the world, is stalled. Yet, in a limited manner, the Thoroughbreds run on.

But isn't that the way it's always been? Without judgement, for more human history than not, the equine has carried the world on its back. The alleged human(s) in charge who think nothing of watching people die would do well to look a horse in the eye to plead forgiveness.

Oh for two rear horseshoes to the skulls of a number of select individuals to put them out of our misery.

For a few hours Saturday, the racing was on, sprinkled with insights into unseen aspects of the game.

Both FoxSports1 and NBCSportsNet were running coverage of, basically, three tracks: Oaklawn, Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs. NBC was running the TVG feed. Los Alamitos and Remington ran quarter horses, the drag racing of horses. They run all out for up to 900 yards and it's fantastic.

Oaklawn, as pleasurable a track a patron can find, perseveres.

I had trouble getting the past performances PDF on the iPad. The promise of sync sank, as always, so I had to e-mail them to myself.

It was a bit scattershot at first, struggling to get in my Oaklawn bets, but Fox analyst and Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens dug on the eight horse, Channel Stuffer, in a mile turfer at Tampa, race nine. "Euro shipper, hasn't run bad, due." Stevens was matter-of fact. $11.00, $4.40, $3.00. Thanks!

Now that I think of it, I wonder why racing analysts don't do this more. Greg Wolf and Michelle Yu first, and then Laffit Pincay III and Stevens, talked about what was really going on in the barns, the "backside." I would have liked more detail about the little people, but they did acknowledge some of it.

Trainer Tom Amoss, who will have his great filly Serengeti Empress running in next week's Apple Blossom, talked logistics.

"Trainers know how to ship. But now, we can ship our horses to Oaklawn, but we can't bring our people. The people the horses know." Pretty much all tracks have banned people moving from track to track.

I wondered: Amoss had one or two horses running Saturday. He's been in his den for three weeks. So who's saddling his horses? My guess is that they're having someone simply on premise doing the job.

It appeared winning horses were simply being walked around the winners circle with perhaps a photographer capturing it. No posing for the connections shot.

By the time I got my wagering tech act together, it was the Oaklawn sixth. the race seemed to have a theme, as the one was Dack Janiel's and the four was Fortheluvofbourbon. The eight was My Friends Beer. I hit for place with Captain Bombastic. Not for nuthin', I often cash a ticket on the first race I play on a day. Don't get me wrong, reality is real, but with no illusions, it still feels good.

In the ninth, the Oaklawn Mile, I knew I knew better than anybody and tried to beat clearly the best horse in the race, Tom's d'Etat. I was wrong, as Tom's class showed, with a twinkle. The undisciplined Bob Baffert trainee Improbable pulled his usual peevishness in the post parade and tantrum in the gate. Bad start and wide trip, he still placed with an impressive run.

"He's his own worst enemy. The energy he wastes in the parade and in the gate probably cost him the race," Stevens said.

I got shut out in race 10, which I had completely "figured out," the damn mouse scroll not even working. That's table-pounding embarrassing and there are only two ways it can go. The one, Prodigious Bay paid $19.60, but I didn't have him or the other two either. But I will tell you this: If one of your picks hits in a shutout, you don't forget that for a long, long time.

Along the way, we were treated to such pleasant featurettes.

Stevens revealed that in the virus state, jocks' room personnel were basically gone. No valets (VAL-ets).

"These guys will sleep well tonight. They have to do everything for themselves, and if you're riding multiple races . . ."

That includes cleaning their own boots, plastic wrapping their goggles when rain comes in, which it did in Hot Springs yesterday, identifying and getting the proper silks which include the proper helmet covering and tending to their tack. The mission of these support personnel is to handle the mundane so that the athletes may focus only on top performance. Seriously.

But things do get serious in the jocks' room and beyond, as we found out Ricardo Santana Jr. will lose his close contention for the Oaklawn riding title after aggressive riding aimed at apparent archival David Cohen, another title contender, earned him a major suspension.

Santana will sit out the remainder of the Oaklawn meet, which not only includes nice purses, but also the Apple Blossom and the Arkansas Derby. Seems counterproductive to me, including trainers harboring doubts, when Santana is a very good rider.

It seems the two don't get along, to put it mildly.

"These two do not like each other," Stevens said.

They showed a clip of the camel-straw infraction and Santana clearly came out to his right and hooked knee with Cohen. Safety, it wasn't.

Stevens described the issue, intimating that the two have come to blows.

"You never settle scores out on the track. You do that in the locker room, although now, they have security guards in there." Old enough, Stevens implied a few fisticuffs usually settled things back in the day.

Stevens said how early on he learned not to take on another rider on the track, naming the great but troubled jockey Pat Valenzuela.

"When you do that, you both take your horse out of the race. Which allows somebody else to jump up. When I saw two other riders feuding, I'd take advantage to get up."

They also had a nice interlude with idled jockey Aaron Gryder, who has taken a job in a supermarket near his Southern California home. It could have been sappy, but Gryder said both that he's happy to help, but also talked about what's in it for him.

"Watching people taking out big bottles or cases of water, I thought, 'The gyms are closed, this could be a good workout.'"

So, Gryder inquired.

"I wanted to see if I could unload trucks and stock shelves. They told me to fill out a job application. I'm almost 50-years-old and I've never filled out a job application, so they had to show me," Gryder said. "I have to ask the boss for (an occasional) break so I can go talk horse racing a couple aisles over."

"We're doing this, but we also have a group that shops and delivers to people who need it," he said matter-of-factly.

Stevens grilled him: "But what about your cardio?!"

"They're letting us run on the (closed) streets up at the Griffith Park Observatory."

Then, the cherry on top.

Race 11, The Oaklawn Stakes, $200,000, 1-1/8 miles, nine furlongs, dirt.

You chase the grits of an Oaklawn bomber. For the life of me, I couldn't find the record, but I was on my way out of Hawthorne Race Course years ago. At the big bar in the main concourse, Oaklawn caught my eye. For nothing and fun, I put two bucks Win Place and hit a 71-1. A track lifer at the bar said, "You had her?!" "Yeah." Timing still perfect, I bought the beer the bartender had just put in front of him.

Saturday, I checked the chemistry of odds, talent and upside and divined on Mr. Big News, the three horse. The Giant's Causeway colt with Galileo his damsire, had all the distance bones. His Beyer Speed Figures rose steadily in his five races but the big slap came when I saw he had consistently improved his position in his last three, including the Risen Star Stakes last out at Oaklawn. The track had been sealed by then under what seems like permanent rain in Hot Springs, so I figured they'd all have a chance to scoot.

In the next gate out was the four, Thousand Words, half brother to American Pharoah, and the 5-2 favorite, not bad, However, the Bob Baffert trainee, Joe Talamo up, stumbled out of the gate, splayed his front legs straight out in front of him and planted them to keep from falling. That's the kind of move that usually slingshots a jockey like the annual pumpkin launch. Somehow, Talamo held on and 'Words recovered nicely. As long as everything was OK, I quickly realized it helped me.

Gabriel Saez on the winner turned to his right at least five times to see that 'Words was OK and to figure out if he was going to make a move. He never did. Gold Street rushed to the early lead while 'News drifted to the back of the pack in the three lane to save some measure of ground. While ninth at three-quarters, 'News was only one length back. He asserted himself once in the stretch and overcame the fading co-favorite, Taishan. Farmington Road spun into the stretch, targeted 'News but could not finish the job. Taishan took Place, 'Words faded to 11th.

After a safe, efficient and mud-splattered trip, our winner paid $95.60, $24.80 and $10.80. Farmington Road paid $8.00 and $5.80, and Taishan paid $3.40. The answer is Yes Across the Whole Board, and not calculator-aided.

Mr. Big News punched two tickets for himself. The Oaklawn Stakes, previously scheduled to run May 2, the old 2020 Kentucky Derby Day, is a traditional prep for The Preakness Stakes, the second jewel of the Triple Crown, which is still seeking its makeup day.

He's also eligible to run in the Arkansas Derby, smartly moved by Oaklawn to May 2. Churchill Downs Inc. moved the Derby back to September 5.

I am perfectly content to settle in on Oaklawn Park from now until meet's end May 2. The Apple Blossom is next week and then we wait for the Arkansas Derby.

It never ends with Churchill Downs, and I'm relieved I won't have to do so much work for a race I don't believe in anymore. My fervent hope is that the Arkansas race draws more attention than usual and that the September 5 Kentucky Derby becomes as anticlimactic as possible.

Servis Industry
Fallout continues after the indictments of 27 racing personnel, including Maximum Security's trainer Jason Servis, over drug skulduggery.

The Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia has frozen all purse money ($20 million) from the Feb. 29th Saudi Cup, won by Maximum Security. While it might be difficult to prove, 'Security quite possibly may have been under the influence of performance enhancing substances.


Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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