Archive for the ‘Thoroughbred racing’ Category

. . . And they’re off!

Friday, January 15th, 2010

In a feature story on Oaklawn Park in The New York Times last April, the newspaper’s superb racing writer, Joe Drape, had this to say: “The Cellas have owned this charming racetrack for nearly 100 years, and their focus on quality horse racing has earned it the reputation as the Saratoga of the South. … Horse racing still rules here and is the reason that the owners and trainers of Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Curlin chose to prepare their colts here for the Kentucky Derby and beyond. In 2004, Smarty Jones used the Arkansas Derby as a springboard to a near miss of the Triple Crown when Birdstone caught him in the stretch of the Belmont Stakes.”

Drape, an author of several books who has attended the Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock before, makes no secret of the fact that he loves Oaklawn. So do some of the biggest names in racing.

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas told him: “It’s a great, great racing town, and if you don’t believe me, just walk into a diner or restaurant and see how many people are looking at the Daily Racing Form. I have folks stop me all the time and ask me about the great horses I’ve had and tell me about the good ones that are at the track right now. There’s not many places left where people adore the sport.”

Trainer Larry Jones told him: “They keep the surface in very good shape, and it is about as close to mimicking Churchill Downs’ oval as you’ll find. You can’t beat the air here, either. It’s fresh and clear and makes you feel like you’re in the country. Mostly, though, it’s because they have good purses, which brings in good horses.”

I visited briefly with jockey Corey Nakatani on Wednesday night, and he confirmed that the racing surface once more is in great shape.

Here’s the recipe: A resort town where the fans adore racing. A track owned by a family that also adores racing. Good purses. Leading horses and jockeys.

Oaklawn, after its struggles of the 1990s, has entered another golden age.

“The racetrack continues to offer novel promotions,” Drape wrote. “It went through six tons of corned beef on opening day when corned beef sandwiches sold for 50 cents and Cokes cost a dime. But just like Saratoga Springs in August, Hot Springs brings in knowledgeable horse enthusiasts.”

Terry Wallace came to Oaklawn in 1975 as the track announcer and has never missed calling a live race at Oaklawn. Not once. That’s a streak of almost 20,000 races.

“I think it’s the most incredible record in sports,”Charles Cella once told me.”This record will never be touched. I can’t imagine anyone will come close.”

Consider the fact that Cella was just 38 years old when Wallace came to Oaklawn. He had run the track for only seven years at that point following the unexpected 1968 death of his father, John G. Cella. For racing fans in Arkansas, the constants at Oaklawn have been Cella as the owner, Eric Jackson as the general manager and Wallace as the track announcer.

“It’s hard to narrow down my most memorable day at the track,” Wallace says. “It usually comes down to meeting the people who I have admired for a long time. I’ve met Carol Channing, Stan Musial, D. Wayne Lukas, Laz Barrera, Pat Day and hundreds of others who have made my life all the richer and more exciting.

“I’m not a Hot Springs native. I was born in Cleveland and only came here in 1975 when I was hired to be the announcer. I did get lost when I was coming here from New Orleans, where I was working at the time. Once I got to Hot Spring County, I thought I was at my destination. What a shock to find out that Hot Springs was not in Hot Spring County. It took me an entire afternoon of driving around Hot Spring County to find out that little secret.”

This is an era of corporate ownership in thoroughbred racing. Magna Entertainment Corp., which filed last year for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, operates seven thoroughbred tracks, including Santa Anita, Gulfstream and Pimlico. It also operates Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie, Texas, which runs both thoroughbred and standardbred meetings.

Churchill Downs Inc. operates — in addition to its namesake track in Louisville — Calder in Miami, Arlington Park in the Chicago area and the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Louisiana Downs in Bossier City is operated by Harrah’s, the casino company. Oaklawn goes against the grain.

“It’s nice to work for a family that’s dedicated to racing and has been for more than 100 years,” Wallace says of the Cella family, which owns only one track. “A lot of these other companies are focused on the gaming aspect. The Cellas, though, are committed to the quality of racing. We’re not publicly held so we can be a little different. At the same time, we realize we won the election that authorized expanded electronic gaming by only 90 votes. So we can’t afford to fumble the ball. This is a small town. You have to honor your promises to the community and be straightforward with people.”

As another live race meet begins today, Eric Jackson has a hard time singling out favorites.

The favorite thoroughbred he has seen compete at Oaklawn?

“My problem is I love animals. So I get attached to all of them. Smarty Jones and Rachel Alexandra have a special place in my heart. But my day-in/day-out favorite may well have been Chindi.”

Favorite owner and trainer? There are many. But some rate special mentions.

“The one-time football coach and then successful businessman Hays Biggs was my kind of guy (as an owner) — a true standup, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy. I think the world of Bob Holthus (as a trainer) and would hate to count how many times I’ve gone to him for advice and counsel and direction.”

Favorite jockey?

“Larry Snyder. Never say him quit trying. Never heard him complain. One of the straightest shooters and fairest people I have ever met.”

Beginning today, more memories will be made. Oaklawn is a shining star in a sport that’s otherwise struggling. Should we ever lose racing and the colorful people who follow it, we’ll lose an important part of the American culture.

I’m drawn to Ted McClelland’s description of Hawthorne Race Course near Chicago. In his delightful book “Horseplayers: Life At The Track,” McClelland has a description of a place that could pass for other American tracks.

“In the grandstand, the grill sold fried chicken, collard greens and peach cobbler,” he wrote. “The cigarette smoke was not as heavy as it had been years ago, when it clouded as thickly as mustard gas on the Western Front and soaked into clothing, skin and the newsprint of my Racing Form. But there were still afternoons when sheer gray scarves floated beneath the ceiling. Over by the barbershop, old men threw spades and bid whist across a scarred tabletop. In the carrels facing the television monitors, which showed races from all across the country, you’d find find baskets full of chicken bones and discarded tickets from Aqueduct, Calder, Laurel, Turfway and the Fair Grounds. The pleas of the gamblers, some sacred, some profane, were as loud as the barking of brokers at the Mercantile Exchange.”

The track. What a place.

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They’re in the gate. . .

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Another season at Oaklawn Park is set to begin Friday. And, for once, there’s no chance that one or more of the first four days of the live meet (Friday through Monday) will fall victim to winter weather.

In past years, Oaklawn’s opening weekend in January often has been a magnet for ice, snow or at least temperatures so low that a frozen track was the result. It would have been a disaster had the meet been scheduled to start last weekend with the lowest temperatures in 14 years.

The weather gods have smiled this time. The only problem this year is going to be perhaps a little rain on Saturday.

Racing at Oaklawn began in February 1905. Hot Springs Mayor John Belding declared that first afternoon of racing a holiday, and almost 3,000 people turned out. The track closed after the 1907 meeting due to political problems with the state.

By 1916, racing had resumed, original owners Dan Strut and John Condon were dead and Louis Cella of St. Louis was the owner.

In 1918, Louis Cella died at age 51 in a St. Louis hospital following a stroke. His brother, Charles, and two partners would continue to operate Oaklawn and a number of other tracks. In October 1940, Charles Cella died in St. Louis at age 65. His son, John G., took over the track. John’s son, Charles J., was age 4 at the time.

Through almost three decades of track ownership, John Cella provided needed stability, developing strong relationships in the Arkansas business and political communities. He saw to it that Oaklawn was a charter member when the Thoroughbred Racing Association was formed in 1942. Spring racing was suspended under his watch in 1945 due to World War II, but he ensured that Oaklawn had a fall meeting that year to celebrate the war’s end. In the years after the war, purse distribution soared and attendance increased.

The Cella family’s investments in the entertainment business consisted of far more than thoroughbred tracks. At one time, the family owned 48 theaters.

“I frankly had more interest in the theater than in racing,” Charles Cella told me a couple of years ago during a visit in his office at Oaklawn. “Unfortunately, by the time I came of age, both racing and live theater were headed south as businesses. Television hurt live theater. And casino gambling hurt racing.”

Cella has been nothing if not innovative, though, since assuming ownership of the track in 1968 following the sudden death of his father from a stroke. Charles Cella was just 31 when he took over Southern Real Estate and Financial Co. and the other family enterprises.

William J. Smith, a prominent Little Rock attorney, had been one of John Cella’s best friends. Smith would advise Charles Cella, becoming almost like a second father to him. Smith, a Texarkana native, earlier had served as a key adviser to Govs. Homer Adkins, Ben Laney, Francis Cherry and Orval Faubus. Smith’s law parter, Little Rock attorney Herschel Friday, later would play the role of strategic adviser and political fixer for Charles Cella.

It’s now a rare thing to find a family-owned track. But Charles Cella hopes to continue the tradition at Oaklawn under the leadership of his sons, John and Louis.

Oaklawn somehow has survived the casino competition from neighboring states. It had been the last track in America to add exotic forms of wagering since Cella is a traditionalist at heart. But once the line was crossed, Oaklawn became an innovator in areas such as simulcasting races from other tracks and adding electronic games. In 1990, Oaklawn became the first North American track to bring full simulcasting cards across state lines. A decade later, the Instant Racing video game was introduced.

Now, Oaklawn has opened an 850-station electronic gambling room, a buffet, a separate video poker room and a racebook for high-dollar horse players. All the games are technically “electronic games of skill,” a designation allowing the track to get around the ban on casinos in the Arkansas Constitution. Legislation was passed in 2005 to allow these games of skill at Oaklawn and at the Southland greyhound track in West Memphis. Each track won local votes in 2006.

I don’t care for electronic games of any type. I likely will never play one at Oaklawn. But I do love thoroughbreds. I’m one of those people who can enjoy a day at the track and never place a wager. And the beauty of the Cella family is that they love racing more than anything. The electronic games truly are a means to fund greater purses and improve the racing facility. That wouldn’t be the case if Oaklawn were owned by a publicly traded corporation.

“Our job, in my opinion, is to make sure racing remains the main attraction here,” Cella once told me. “Not for one minute will I tolerate cutting back on what we do in the area of racing in order to promote gaming.”

Among Cella’s best innovations was the 1974 birth of the Racing Festival of the South. The festival includes a stakes race a day on the final seven days of racing each year, culminating with the Arkansas Derby. The Cella idea that paid off the most in terms of national publicity came three decades later in 2004. Cella announced that any 3-year-old that could sweep the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby would win a bonus of $5 million in celebration of Oaklawn’s centennial year. And along came Smarty Jones.

Since then, the 3-year-old program at Oaklawn has become even stronger.

Last night, almost 350 people packed the banquet room at the Wyndham Hotel in North Little Rock for a banquet sponsored by the Arkansas Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Horsemen’s Association. The size of the crowd showed the strength of thoroughbred racing in Arkansas.

Also consider the fact that two of the leading jockeys in America were in attendance. Calvin Borel, who became a nationally known sports celebrity last year when he rode Mine That Bird to victory in the Kentucky Derby and Rachel Alexandra to victory in the Preakness, was there. So was West Coast staple Corey Nakatani, the winner of eight Breeders’ Cup races in his career. The fact that both of these jockeys will ride the entire meet at Oaklawn says a lot about where the track now stands in the world of American racing.

Speaking at last night’s banquet was Maggi Moss, a former trial lawyer from Des Moines who gave up practicing law to concentrate on the thoroughbreds she owns. She consistently ranks as one of the country’s leading owners, and she loves Oaklawn.

She described Belmont Park in New York, with its surly race fans, as “a hostile work environment.”

She described Santa Anita Park in California as “beautiful but there is no one there.”

She described Oaklawn as “the greatest racetrack in America.”

“The enthusiasm here is unlike any other other place in the country,” Moss said.

Think about it. Arkansas does not have a major league baseball team. We don’t have an NFL, NBA or NHL team. Thoroughbred racing is the one professional sport where we truly are in the big leagues.

It’s time for what they used to call the Fifth Season to begin.

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Football’s other Randy Moss

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

When one mentions NFL football and Randy Moss in the same breath, most people will think of the wide receiver for the New England Patriots. That Moss played his college football at Marshall University, played his first seven years of pro football for the Minnesota Vikings and then was traded in 2005 to the Oakland Raiders. In April 2007, Moss was traded to the Patriots.

This season, however, there’s another Moss associated with the NFL. It’s Hot Springs native Randy Moss, the thoroughbred racing analyst for ESPN/ABC. This fall, Randy is also working for the NFL Network. Frankly, I can’t think of a better fit. I’m biased because Randy is a friend and a former newspaper colleague. But I can tell you he understands all sports and is among the best analysts of any type on television.

Now living in Minnesota, Randy is among the native Arkansans who have done well on the national stage. Randy, who grew up hanging around Oaklawn Park, attended the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences at Little Rock with the intention of becoming a pharmacist. Soon, however, he decided it would be more fun to handicap horses than to fill prescriptions.

Moss left pharmacy school when Arkansas Gazette sports editor Orville Henry offered him a full-time position as the newspaper’s handicapper and Oaklawn correspondent.

As a young sportswriter at the rival Arkansas Democrat, a fortunate turn of events occurred for me soon before the start of the 1982 race meet at Oaklawn. Jeff Krupsaw, who had been covering Oaklawn for the Democrat, took a job at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. With Krup headed to NOLA just before the start of the live meet, Democrat sports editor Wally Hall had to scramble.

It just so happened that I had been sports editor of Arkadelphia’s Daily Siftings Herald during my four years of college and had spent a good part of my wayward youth in the Oaklawn press box. So I got the assignment — pretty much by default since no one else understood racing — as the Democrat’s 1982 Oaklawn beat writer.

Of course, Randy was both handicapping and writing stories. I only wrote stories. Terry Wallace made the picks for the Democrat in those days. Still, it was fun competing that year against someone who already had become somewhat of an Arkansas celebrity.

Less than a week after the Arkansas Derby that spring, Wally called me into his office. He said: “I’ve got some bad news for you and some good news for the paper.”

The bad news for me was that Moss was leaving the Gazette to go to work for the Democrat. It was virtually unheard of in those days for a well-known writer at the Gazette to depart for the Democrat. Moss was the first big-name defection in the newspaper war. Orville Henry’s defection wouldn’t occur for several more years. It meant I no longer would cover Oaklawn on a daily basis. But it was good news for the newspaper since it also meant that the Democrat was on the rise.

Before the Moss hire, Wally had promised me that I would accompany him to his first (and my second) Kentucky Derby. Even with Randy Moss on board, Wally was true to his word. So the Democrat had three people at that year’s Derby, a sign of the kind of money that was beginning to be spent as the newspaper war heated up.

I would leave the newspaper for a time, only to return as Wally’s top deputy in 1985. In that position, I was technically Randy’s supervisor. Randy spent his autumns at Louisiana Downs back then. Nowhere on the sports battlefield against the Gazette was the competition more heated than in the area of Friday night high school football. I was determined that Randy should join all of our writers in covering games on Friday nights.

You know what? He never complained. He would finish handicapping the Saturday card and then drive from Louisiana Downs to Texarkana, El Dorado, Magnolia, Camden, Hope or wherever else in south Arkansas I had him covering a game. And he put as much effort into his high school football stories as his Kentucky Derby stories. He was a pro.

Randy left Little Rock for the Dallas Morning News back when Dave Smith was putting out the best newspaper sports section in America at Dallas. He later moved to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Randy even worked for Oaklawn for two years. Randy has now been an analyst for ESPN’s thoroughbred racing coverage for a decade. He had first cut his teeth in television doing reports from the Oaklawn press box for Little Rock television stations.

If you enjoy thoroughbred racing, you’ll enjoy Randy’s new blog for the Daily Racing Form at www.mossblog.typepad.com. He’s now become even more famous among amateur handicappers for his Moss Pace Figures.

If you have the NFL Network, you can also look for him there this fall. It’s not a bad step up for a guy we had covering Camden Fairview games back in 1985.

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The fifth and finest season

Friday, September 11th, 2009

Back in the days before simulcasting, Instant Racing and “electronic games of skill,” Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs advertised its live race meet as The Fifth Season.

It was a fitting moniker. That’s because Oaklawn is what’s known in the business as a destination track — a place where people bring friends and family members for the day, perhaps even take a vacation there.

There are few destination tracks left in this country. Saratoga in upstate New York is one. Delmar in southern California is another. Keeneland in Kentucky is yet another. Churchill Downs in Louisville is a destination track only during the week of the Kentucky Derby. The same is true with Pimlico in Baltimore.

When I lived in Washington in the 1980s, I would make the short trip to Baltimore on Saturdays in the fall with a fellow racing enthusiast named Jim East, who at the time was the Washington correspondent for the Tulsa Tribune. The old Pimlico complex in the inner city would be almost empty on those fall Saturdays. You could hear the discarded tickets rustle when the wind would blow. Try going to Churchill Downs at a time other than Derby Week. I’ll put it this way — you won’t have a hard time finding a seat.

Oaklawn no longer uses The Fifth Season in its advertising since it’s now a destination 12 months a year. Personally, though, I have no real desire to be there when the horses aren’t running. I care nothing about video games or anything else one might find in a casino. My previous job with the Delta Regional Authority often found me at meetings in Tunica casinos, since those happened to be the nicest meeting facilities in the Delta. My wife would ask: “Did you play anything?” No, I would answer. I do tend to like the steakhouses one finds in a casino and always figured I could get a better return on my investment by spending my money on a shrimp cocktail and a New York strip.

At the races, I am what I suppose is one of those rare individuals who can enjoy a full racing card without placing bets. I simply like to watch thoroughbreds compete. I like the jockeys. I like the owners. I like the colorful characters you find at the track. As a newspaper writer, I could find more good stories at the track than anywhere else.

So I’m glad the video games are doing well at Oaklawn. You won’t find me there. For one thing, I no longer want to be in enclosed rooms where people smoke. But the success of these games means purses will be higher than ever when the horses run again at Oaklawn in January, February, March and April.

I’ve been thinking of Oaklawn lately because of the success of Rachel Alexandra and Summer Bird at Saratoga in recent weeks. I feel fortunate that my two sons have inherited my love of watching great thoroughbreds run. I made sure my 12-year-old was with me on April 5 to watch Rachel Alexandra compete in the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn. After she had won the Martha Washington by eight lengths back on Feb. 15, it had become apparent that this filly was special. At the Fantasy Stakes, she stretched the margin out to almost nine lengths.

Less than a month later, on the first day of May, she ran one of the greatest races ever run by a filly, winning the Kentucky Oaks by 20 and 1/4 lengths. Jockey Calvin Borel, an Oaklawn regular through the years, put it best that day: “I’ve been in the business 30 years, and I’ve never rode a horse like this.”

A day later, Calvin would win the Kentucky Derby aboard Mine That Bird.

Billionaire Jess Jackson bought Rachel Alexandra after the Oaks victory and paid a $100,000 supplemental fee to enter her in the Preakness Stakes. I sat on my couch at home on May 16 (wishing I were in Baltimore), watching the race with former racing writer Kane Webb. We looked on in awe as Rachel beat the boys, coming out of the No. 13 post position to become the first filly to win the Preakness since 1924.

Rachel Alexandra’s summer campaign included wins in the Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont, the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth and the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga last Saturday against older males horses. She was spooked by the roar of the crowd at Saratoga and bucked off Borel during the post parade. But she won by a head on an off day. Consider this: Only five other fillies had ever run in that race. Only two had ever finished in the money. No filly had ever won the Woodward Stakes. She was, in fact, the first 3-year-old filly to win a Grade 1 dirt race against older males in New York since 1887.

She has now won nine straight races. My son and I got to see a beautiful animal who might go down as the best filly ever. And we saw her at Oaklawn.

And moving to the male side of things, what about Summer Bird, owned by Dr. Kalarikkal Jayaraman and Dr. Vilasini Jayaraman of Hot Springs? Summer Bird finished third in the Arkansas Derby on April 11. But he came back to win the Belmont Stakes. After finishing second to Rachel Alexandra in the Haskell, Summer Bird won the prestigious Travers Stakes at Saratoga last month. He might be the top 3-year-0ld male this year. And once again, we saw him run at Oaklawn.

We, of course, saw Smarty Jones run as a 3-year-0ld at Oaklawn. We saw Afleet Alex run as a 3-year-old at Oaklawn. We saw Curlin run as a 3-year-old at Oaklawn.

Are you detecting a pattern here? Are you seeing that Oaklawn is becoming the best place in the country to watch the nation’s top 3-year-olds prep for the Triple Crown?

Oaklawn assistant general manager David Longinotti put it this way earlier this year: “The focus of our season is the 3-year-old racing. It’s kind of the focus of the racing world as horses prepare for the Kentucky Derby, and we think this is the best place in the country to do that.”

The Kentucky Oaks, the Preakness Stakes, the Belmont Stakes, the Travers Stakes and the Woodward Stakes all sent strong messages to trainers who will have top 3-year-olds next year. The message is this: Oaklawn is a good place to prep their horses in the late winter and early spring. One can expect the quality of racing to be as good, if not better, than ever before.

There were those of us who once thought the “glory days” of the late 1970s and early 1980s would never return to Oaklawn. I think we need to reassess our feelings. The glory days are now.

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