TrackNotes: Storming Oaklawn

When little brother Jim Jr. was doing his work down in Conway, Arkansas, I was lucky to enjoy the hospitality of he and his bride and son.

It's the home of Central Arkansas University, a beautiful campus where Crumbs found Scottie, and you know the rest.

We even ran into Scottie once, at a pizzeria, when he was in town to be inducted into something and have something named after him. Feeling "jolly," I pressed to shake Scottie's hand, and his bodyguard, nearly as tall as the Pip but twice as wide, nearly killed me with his stare. You'd be stupid, and I wasn't, to not think he was packing heat.

The little jockey on my shoulder, belatedly, said, isn't there a race track down there? Smarty Jones, Arazi, Zenyatta in the Apple Blossom? YEAH.

So I fully exploited said hospitality, fluttered the eyelashes, and angelically said, "Hey, why don't we go to Oaklawn Park?"

Bro was into the horses enough, and his boy took it all in. To me, it was better than a Frank (Handi)Capra movie.

So, I dig watching the races from Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs. It's a great track. So clean you could eat off the floor, the paddock where they saddle the steeds is inside, the people are so friendly you notice. It was good enough for Big Al and the Chicago Mob, and you know how they liked nice things. There was also the tradition of Chicago horses winter running in Hot Springs, which begs the chicken/egg question: Who came first, the horses or the mobsters? They managed to build a casino there to support the racing, seriously, but you can't even see it unless you're looking for it. Plenty o' parking, and nobody minds that there is no turf course.

The late Charles Cella, who was so visionary the racing industry didn't listen to him, passed in December 2017, and anybody who cares about racing felt it. He really did use the casino to improve the racing. It's not Oaklawn's fault, but I have just a dickens of a time handicapping its races.

I was so worried about the weather - I've gone through that there - that I told Perry White on Friday that it might be a problem.

And it was bad, but not insurmountable. Starting in the wee morning, it rained, hard, all day. With wind pushing water across the track. But, and I'm not kidding, it was heartwarming to see the fantastic job the track crew did in expertly sealing the track to let the speed will out. The horses out of the gate just seemed visually very fast on Oaklawn's long stretch into the first turn. It's one of the longest stretches in America, along with Belmont and our own Hawthorne Race Course (Big Al-Stickney).

Last week, me and a buddy were asking, Who are these horses? Impatient, maybe, but now we can look at several, including Omaha Beach, the impressive winner of Saturday's Arkansas Derby (Grade I, 1-1/8 miles, nine furlongs, $1,000,000) run every year since 1936, except in 1945, at least once in two heats. After all, Smarty Jones came through Hot Springs, and we'll never forget American Pharoah. Other Arkansas stars with hoof prints at Grauman's include Curlin, Afleet Alex and Victory Gallop.

The Kentucky Derby, May 4, but you knew that, has more than a handful of contenders that I wouldn't argue with you about.

Omaha Beach, son of War Front out of the Seeking the Gold mare Charming, trained by Richard Mandella with Hall of Famer Mike Smith up, executed a marvelous race.

A good break, 'Beach wisely gathered his senses, but was right up there anyway. His tail was bunned up to eliminate any consequence of the rain. Improbable (Bob Baffert/Jose Ortiz), a horse so improbably mantra'd into Derby favoritism at this early juncture, didn't have a bad start, but he was well back.

The big colt Omaha' made an early, powerful move shortly into the backstretch to take the lead and never gave it up. Improbable made what was a better move to mimic Omaha Beach, but just to get into contention. The battle began. Omaha Beach never lost the lead, but he had to work so hard to keep it as great race announcer Vic Stauffer set the stage for the final sixteenth-plus. "Improbable gonna try him One. More. Time!"

The race was so Derby-esque, I just hope Omaha Beach didn't run his signature race of 2019 already. But, he'll be right up with the tote favorites at Churchill Downs.

But wait, there's more. Gray-haired soap opera fans from all over will wonder where Mike Smith's heart, and wallet, will be as he now has to choose between Omaha Beach and Baffert's Roadster, who Smith rode so deftly over Game Winner in last week's Santa Anita Derby. What a problem to have, but it really is a dilemma, Batman.

Smith will have to visualize trips of the two in the Derby, the versatility and tractability of both, stamina, grace under pressure, turn of foot as the stampede straightens in the stretch. His decision will, rightly, affect the Derby odds for the grizzled like me but, more importantly, send the signal of who this Hall of Famer thinks is the better horse or better Derby prospect, not necessarily the same thing. He has no fealty to Baffert, even with his Triple Crown campaign aboard Justify last year, because he's Mike Smith. I'll play the naivete card now, but I don't think he'll demand the rider appearance cash, unlike the pro tiger golfer leech boys. He's so above that, he says, "Give me a good horse and I'll bring him home." That's how he works.

Somebody had to win the Lexington Stakes (Grade III, 1-1/16 furlongs, 8.5 furlongs, $200,000). Someone with points already but perhaps needing insurance tallies. Tepid longshot Owendale, 12-1, did so, but won't be in the Derby. Winning this race, he'll be a light bulb over our heads all year, but we'll see.

There were a lot of small moments Saturday that make it so fun to jaw with buddies who follow the game.

* I didn't bet, but I won't burden you with why. But the cuckoo birds circling my cranium kept saying "Derby weekend - - - bankroll."

* Ahmed Fareed appears to be established as the new anchor of NBC's horse racing panel. Maybe at some point I'll look up who he is, but he does a good job. Which is laying down the topic and setting up Randy Moss and Jerry Bailey, who both more often than not puke the rock. But Fareed does well at what he's asked for. Not sure of the dynamic, but I was wondering about Laffit Pincay III. Did see him do a stand-up location shot later. With those two in the stable, pleeeeeeeezzzzzz keep Mike Tirico away.

* Speaking of Tirico, see that item on Punk Prez cheating at golf? Bad judgement, Tirico was playing with him. He hit a, THE, shot of his life to a blind, elevated green. Dead on the pin. Orange Boy Toddler takes the ball, throws it in a bad bunker, and buries it. If you've ever played golf. What kind of man takes away a golf shot of a lifetime from a fellow man? But he's not a man. Henchman told Tirico it was inside five feet. IT lives among us.

* TVG's Todd Schrupp - if you're a TrackNotes regular you know, but don't bother looking = has got to go. Coming on air Saturday, he called it the KenDucky Derby. Small thing, but it points to the issue that he loves his own voice so much that the front part of his brain and his mouth are so far ahead of the reasoning lobe. He used dozens more words to say Kentucky Derby properly, but didn't even laugh at himself. Remind you of someone? His ego and self-importance have even rubbed off on Simon Bray, a guy who might still be but used to be a trainer and horse sale agent and gets by on his somewhere British accent that Americans love to love. I'm no Elvis and I can't afford a new TV, but I'm glad I didn't have a .38 snubnose.

* I've always detested Tiger Woods. He took Jordan-esque social irresponsibility to solar system heights. They do damage. Jack, Arnie, Trevino. Them's my guys.

* As only a dressing room guy can pull off, off mic to the side, a shout. "HEY, hold on a second. There's horse racing and you guys didn't invite me?" It was Eddie Olczyk crashing the NBC set, totally by surprise. Acknowledgment for all, it was "Hey Gramps" to Randy Moss. He did a slick quick plug for hockey on TV last night and asked Bailey about Roadster, fully knowing he hit big on him earlier this year. "I thought you were going to tell us about Roadster at 18 to 1," Bailey. "No, 21-1! And that was in February." Then the serious picks. Comparing the quality of their suits, "That's the nicer child's size," Eddie declared to Bailey. Two guys who played the game.

So it's catch-your-breath time before the big Derby weekend. In all honesty, I'm much more anticipating this Derby than I was just a short time ago. We'll need to determine if the truly competitive top six or so can or will be challenged by some other shooters. I say, "Why not?"

Horses like Bourbon War or lingering buzz boy Instagrand or well regarded Sueno won't be in, but don't they deserve watching down the line? Preakness anyone?

I'd sure like to get back down to Oaklawn, but I'll probably now have to do it on my own.


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

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