Archive for May, 2013

The Preakness: A day for old men

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

At 2 a.m. on a Saturday in late March, trainer D. Wayne Lukas pulled out of Hot Springs and began the long drive in the dark to New Orleans, where he would saddle the thoroughbred Titletown Five for the 100th running of the Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds.

One of the owners of Titletown Five is Paul Hornung, the Pro Football Hall of Famer who grew up in Louisville, Ky.

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Hornung won the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame and played on four of Vince Lombardi’s championship teams in Green Bay.

Titletown Five made a bid for the lead at the half-mile pole that day before fading badly in the stretch.

After the race, the 77-year-old Lukas got back in his car and returned to Hot Springs so he could train his horses at Oaklawn Park early the next morning.

It was just another day — another long day — at the office for the man they call The Coach.

The fact that one of the most famous thoroughbred trainers in history makes Arkansas his winter and early spring base speaks volumes about the national prominence Oaklawn now enjoys in its new golden era. While he no longer was receiving the media attention he once did (prior to Saturday’s running of the Preakness Stakes, that is), few trainers work harder than the aging Lukas.

On March 16 — as a crowd of 33,963 looked on at Oaklawn with the sun shining down — Lukas stablemates Will Take Charge and Oxbow finished first and second respectively in the $600,000 Rebel Stakes, the key prep race for the Arkansas Derby.

“I was feeling pretty good 100 yards from the wire,” Lukas said after the race. “The competition was so tough. The hill gets a little steeper from this point.”

Will Take Charge had won the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, but he fell to sixth in the Southwest Stakes on Presidents’ Day on a wet track. Lukas joked after Will Take Charge won the Rebel: “Will Take Charge is a fair-weather horse. He said he didn’t feel like running in the rain last time.”

Veteran Jon Court was aboard Will Take Charge in the Rebel.

Aboard Oxbow that day was another veteran jockey, Mike Smith.

Oxbow ran in the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 13, finishing a disappointing fifth with 50-year-old Gary Stevens aboard. Oxbow competed three weeks later in the Kentucky Derby, finishing sixth.

Oxbow, owned by the legendary Calumet Farm of Kentucky, then shocked the racing world this past Saturday in Baltimore with a wire-to-wire win in the Preakness. Kentucky Derby winner Orb had been the heavy favorite coming into the race.

Oxbow was a 15-1 longshot.

“I get paid to spoil dreams,” Lukas said. “You can’t mail ’em in. It’s a different surface and a different time. You gotta line ’em up and win ’em.”

Calumet, Lukas and Stevens represent racing royalty.

Consider Lukas’ resume:

— He has trained 24 Eclipse Award winners, including greats such as Althea, Azeri and Winning Colors.

— He has trained three Horse of the Year honorees — Lady’s Secret in 1986, Criminal Type in 1990 and Charismatic in 1999.

— He has won 14 Triple Crown races, surpassing “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons on the list of Triple Crown winning trainers with the Preakness win on Saturday. That record includes four Kentucky Derby wins, six Preakness Stakes wins and four Belmont Stakes victories.

— He once won five consecutive Triple Crown races, beginning with the Preakness in 1994 and ending with the 1996 Kentucky Derby, when he sent out five horses and won it with Grindstone.

— He became the all-time money winner among thoroughbred trainers in 1988. He was the first trainer to top $100 million and $200 million in stakes earnings.

— He has saddled more than 40 Kentucky Derby starters.

Last year when Lukas got Optimizer into the Kentucky Derby at the last moment, longtime Newark Star-Ledger sports columnist Jerry Izenberg wrote: “The battle lines leap to mind in a rush of memory — Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird — linked together as closely as second skins in a pantheon of confrontations where each heartbeat combines a lot of Ahab and a lot of the White Whale. Here in ‘Weep No More’ city, year after year for a long time, it was always D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert.”

Izenberg went on to describe Lukas as “racing’s lion in winter” and said: “The white heat of his competitor’s heart burns so fiercely you could light downtown Louisville with it for a month.”

Stevens ended a seven-year retirement in January and won his third Preakness. He already had three Kentucky Derby and three Belmont Stakes victories.

“At 50 years old, after seven years of retirement, it doesn’t get any better than this,” Stevens said. “This is super, super sweet, and it happened for the right guy. All the stars were aligned. It’s even more special winning it for Wayne Lukas and his team.”

Stevens was riding for Lukas when the jockey won his first Triple Crown race aboard filly Winning Colors in the 1988 Kentucky Derby. Stevens had last won a Triple Crown race aboard Point Given in the Belmont Stakes in 2001.

“He supported me,” Stevens said of Lukas. “He was the first guy to call me up. He said, ‘I’m going to have a colt for you. His name is Oxbow.'”

Lukas had not won a Triple Crown event since saddling Commendable in the 2000 Belmont.

Shug McGaughey, Orb’s trainer, said of Lukas: “When Wayne wasn’t going good, he was still the first guy out on his pony. The guy is a credit to racing. He’s always upbeat and optimistic.”

Lukas had three of the nine horses in the Preakness (Will Take Charge finished seventh and Titletown Five finished ninth). He said of breaking the tie with Fitzsimmons for Triple Crown victories: “I shared that record with a very special name. If I never broke it, I was proud of that. But I’m also proud to have it.”

Calumet, meanwhile, has produced:

— Two Triple Crown winners, Whirlaway in 1941 and Citation in 1948.

— Eight Kentucky Derby winners. In addition to Whirlaway and Citation, there were Pensive in 1944, Ponder in 1949, Hill Gail in 1952, Iron Liege in 1957, Tim Tam in 1958 and Forward Pass in 1968.

— Eight Preakness winners.

— 11 horses in the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame — Alydar, Armed, Bewitch, Citation, Coaltown, Davona Dale, Real Delight, Twilight Tear, Two Lea, Tim Tam and Whirlaway.

— Two trainers in the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame — Ben. A Jones and H.A. “Jimmy” Jones.

— Five Horse of the Year titles — Whirlaway in 1941 and 1942, Twilight Tear in 1944 (the first filly ever to be voted Horse of the Year), Armed in 1947 and Citation in 1948.

The 762-acre breeding and training farm was established in Lexington in 1924 by William Monroe Wright, the owner of Calumet Baking Powder Co. The farm initially bred and raced standardbred horses. Wright’s son Warren took over in 1932 and changed the focus to thoroughbreds. The first stakes winner came in 1933 when Hadagal won the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park in New York.

Some of the finest thoroughbreds in history would go on to wear Calumet’s devil red and blue silks. Ben A. Jones came on board as trainer in 1939, and Whirlaway gave Calumet its first Kentucky Derby victory two years later, just months before the U.S. entry into World War II.

By 1947, the farm had become the first ever to exceed $1 million in purse earnings. After Citation won the Triple Crown in 1948, jockey Eddie Arcaro described him as the best horse he ever rode.

Ben Jones passed away in 1961, and his son Jimmy retired in 1964. Calumet had only 20 stakes winners from 1964-77. In 1976, John Veitch, whose father Sylvester had been a Hall of Fame trainer, was hired. Veitch was the trainer of Alydar in 1978 when the sport saw perhaps its greatest rivalry as Alydar finished just behind Affirmed in all three legs of the Triple Crown.

By the 1980s, Calumet was in serious decline.

Alydar died in 1990, and the farm went into bankruptcy soon after that. In 1992, Calumet was put on the auction block. It seemed that an iconic name in racing history was about to die.

Mismanagement and fraud had gone on for years. In 2000, former Calumet president J.T. Lundy and former chief financial officer Gary Matthews were convicted of fraud and bribery and sent to prison.

Enter businessman Henryk de Kwiatkowski, a Polish-born Canadian citizen with a deep love of racing and its traditions.

When he heard of the auction, he quickly flew to Lexington, arriving less than an hour before the sale began. He became the Calumet owner following a $17 million bid. Within weeks, his employees were repairing the white fences and mowing the lush grass, returning Calumet to its former beauty.

Following de Kwiatkowski’s death in 2003, the farm remained in a trust controlled by family members.

Last year, the Calumet Investment Group bought the farm from the trust for more than $36 million and leased it to Bowling Green, Ky., native Brad Kelley. He’s the fourth-largest landowner in the country with more than 1.7 million acres of ranching land in Texas, New Mexico and Florida.

As for Lukas, his story is well-known to racing enthusiasts. He was born on Sept. 2, 1935, in Wisconsin. He taught high school and coached basketball for nine years after graduating from the University of Wisconsin.

Lukas began training quarter horses in California in 1968. During the next decade, he trained 24 world championship quarter horses before switching to thoroughbreds.

Now, the “lion in in winter” has returned Calumet and jockey Gary Stevens to the racing spotlight.

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Happy birthday Brooks Robinson

Friday, May 17th, 2013

Brooks Robinson turns 76 Saturday.

Perhaps you can wish him a belated happy birthday when he returns home to Arkansas next month.

Robinson, the Little Rock native who was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1978 and the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983, will be at Lamar Porter Field on June 15 to draw attention to revitalization efforts at the historic complex.

The field is owned by the Boys & Girls Club of Central Arkansas. Those associated with it want to make sure it doesn’t meet the same fate as nearby Ray Winder Field.

Do you get as sick as I do each time you travel down Interstate 630 and see the ghastly UAMS parking lot that occupies the site that was long the home of Ray Winder Field?

“The sadness of witnessing the demise of Ray Winder fills me with gratitude that Lamar Porter doesn’t suffer the same fate,” says Little Rock businessman Jay Rogers. “Lamar Porter is now the oldest usable field in the state of Arkansas.”

In late 2011, the Lamar Porter Complex Revitalization Committee was formed. In addition to renovating the baseball field, the committee hopes to fund improvements at the Billy Mitchell Boys and Girls Club, the Woodruff Gardens and adjoining recreational areas.

Lamar Porter Field was built between 1934 and 1937 by the Works Progress Administration as part of the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to put people to work during the Great Depression. It was an impressive concrete-and-steel facility that could seat 1,500 people. It was also the only baseball field in the state that had electric lights at the time.

The 10-acre site that includes the baseball field was given to what was then known as the Little Rock Boys Club in honor of Lamar Porter. The Little Rock native was a junior at Washington and Lee University in Virginia when he was killed in an automobile accident on May 12, 1934.

In addition to donating the land, the family contributed money for construction. The first anniversary of Porter’s death coincided with Mother’s Day. The donation was announced that day by his mother, Louise Skillern Porter.

Lamar Porter’s nephew, who shares his name, is among the trustees for the revitalization committee.

“A memorial serves no purpose if it ceases to exist,” says the younger Porter. “This complex needs revitalization soon or it will meet the same fate as Ray Winder Field.”

The June 15 event will begin at 5:30 p.m. and is scheduled to end by 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 each and are available at The SportStop on Rodney Parham Road. The business is owned by Rogers. Each ticket will be good for admission to the event, a hot dog, a soft drink, popcorn and a chance to get Robinson’s autograph.

Robinson remains a legendary figure in Baltimore, where he spent his major league career. Following his retirement at the end of the 1977 season, Robinson began a 16-year career as a television announcer for the Orioles. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. He’s one of only six former Orioles to have had a number retired by the team.

Was Brooks Robinson the best third baseman ever to play the game?

Many baseball historians think so. He began playing baseball almost as soon as he could walk. Robinson’s father, a fireman, had played semipro baseball and also was a member of the 1937 International Harvester softball team from Little Rock that played in the finals of the World Softball Championship in Chicago.

“Brooks Robinson began playing baseball at the grammar school level as a catcher for the Woodruff School,” Jeff Bailey wrote for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “He spent much of his time practicing at the facilities of the Arkansas School for the Deaf, which was across the street from his home. He also worked the scoreboard and sold cold drinks during games played at Lamar Porter Field. While a student at Pulaski Heights Junior High, Robinson played quarterback for the 1951 junior high state championship football team and was an honorable mention on the all-state team.”

Robinson played basketball and ran track at Little Rock High School. During the summer, he played American Legion baseball for the M.M. Eberts Post No. 1’s team, the Doughboys. The Doughboys won American Legion state championships in 1952 and 1953.

As soon as Robinson graduated from high school in 1955, he signed a contract with the Orioles. Having just turned 18, he first played for the Orioles’ farm team in York, Pa., in the Piedmont League. Late in the season, Robinson earned a promotion to the big leagues. By the 1958 season, he was the Orioles’ regular third baseman.

Known as the Human Vacuum Cleaner, Robinson won an amazing 16 consecutive Gold Glove Awards (1960-75). His best season offensively came in 1964 when he batted .317 with 28 home runs and 118 RBI. He was the Aemrican League MVP that year, receiving 18 of the 20 first-place votes. Mickey Mantle was second in the voting.

In 1966, Robinson was the MVP at the All-Star Game. He finished second that year behind teammate Frank Robinson in the American League MVP balloting as the Orioles defeated the Los Angeles Dogers in the World Series.

The Orioles would win two World Series while Brooks Robinson was playing for them. The second came in 1970 when he was the World Series MVP against the Cincinnati Reds.

The Orioles had lost the World Series to the New York Mets the previous season. In 1970, however, it was almost as if Robinson willed them to a championship.

Robinson had a .583 batting average in the 1970 American League Championship Series against the Minnesota Twins. In the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, Robinson had a .429 batting average with two home runs and some incredible defensive plays.

“I’m beginning to see Brooks in my sleep,” Reds Manager Sparky Anderson said. “If I dropped this paper plate, he would pick it up on one hop and throw me out at first.”

As the World Series MVP, Robinson was awarded a new Toyota.

Reds catcher Johnny Bench said, “Gee, if we had known he wanted a new car that bad, we would have chipped in and bought him one.”

Robinson played in his last World Series in 1971 as the Orioles lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates in seven games. Baltimore would win division titles in 1973 and 1974 but lose in the American League Championship Series.

Robinson was selected for the American League All-Star team for 15 consecutive years from 1960-74. His career batting average was .267 with 2,848 hits, 268 home runs and 1,357 RBI. He led the American League in fielding percentage 11 times. He retired with a .971 fielding average, the highest ever for a third baseman.

At the time of his retirement, Robinson also had the records for a third baseman for games played at third (2,870), putouts (2,697), assists (6,205) and double plays (618). Only Carl Yastrzemski, Hank Aaron and Stan Musial played more games during their careers for one franchise.

Yet another Robinson record came from hitting into four triple plays during his career.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing someone erase my record of hitting into triple plays,” he later said.

How popular was Brooks Robinson in Baltimore, even after he retired?

In 1982, WMAR-TV’s on-air announcers had been on strike for two months leading into the baseball season. When Robinson refused to cross the picket line as opening day approached, station executives began new negotiations. The strike ended the next day, and Robinson was on the air for the season opener.

Robinson and Baltimore Colts’ quarterback Johnny Unitas had plaques in their honor in Balimore’s venerable Memorial Stadium. The two men were saluted on the field when the Orioles played their last game there on Oct. 6, 1991.

In 1999, The Sporting News placed the native Arkansan on its list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players. He also was named to the All-Time Rawlings Gold Glove team.

Veteran Associated Press sportswriter Gordon Beard was the emcee for the ceremony that marked Robinson’s last game at Memorial Stadium in 1977. Beard reminded the crowd of Reggie Jackson’s remark: “If I played in New York, they would name a candy bar after me.”

“Around here,” Beard said, “nobody has named a candy bar after Brooks Robinson. We name our children after him.”

Now, Robinson is coming back to Little Rock to lend a hand to those who are saving Lamar Porter Field.

Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys and Episcopal Collegiate High School use Lamar Porter Field for home games. The field and an adjoining space also are the Arkansas home of a national program known as Reviving Baseball in the Inner City, which is sponsored by Major League Baseball.

Portions of the movie “A Soldier’s Story,” starring Denzel Washington, were filmed at the field in 1984. In December 1990, the facility was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

There are other positive things going on in the neighborhood.

The Woodruff Community Garden allows novice and experienced gardeners to have plots in the city. The renovation project will add lights, security updates, a more secure gardening shed, a gate and fencing to the community garden.

There also will be restoration work on historic stone walls and bridges.

Other improvements will take place at the Billy Mitchell Boys & Girls Club, which is named after the man who became associated with the club in 1922 and began heading the organization in 1928. Mitchell, who had played basketball at Texas A&M, was connected with the club for more than 50 years. Construction of the current facility was completed in 1982.

In December 2011, the revitalization committee announced that an anonymous donor had given a significant gift to begin the process of planning the renovation effort.

In January 2012, representatives of the Little Rock architectural firm Witsell Evans Rasco met with the committee. Last August, the firm’s initial renderings for renovating the complex were approved.

Robinson agreed in September to become the honorary chairman of the revitalization committee.

“Not only did I sharpen my baseball skills at Lamar Porter, I even once won a bubble-blowing contest there and proudly rode a new bicycle home,” he said. “The memories of playing there and the friendships that I made have lasted all my life.”

In October, the Boys & Girls Club of Central Arkansas and the Lamar Porter Complex Revitalization Committee announced a partnership with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation of Baltimore. The foundation was founded in 2001 by Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and his brother, Bill Ripken, who also played for the Orioles.

Cal Ripken Sr., who died in 1999, had a 37-year career working for the Orioles. The Ripken Foundation seeks to help kids from low-income families, using baseball as the hook to reach boys and softball to reach girls.

The revitalization committee’s website contains the words “heading for home.”

With a master plan now in place, it’s a fitting motto as the great Brooks Robinson heads home to Little Rock, determined that the city won’t see another historic treasure turned into a parking lot.

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On a barge at Rosedale

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

In a recent newspaper column, I harkened back to the much-publicized signing of a pact between the governors of Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. The ceremony took place in the spring of 1988 on a barge anchored in the Mississippi River at Rosedale, Miss.

I was listening to former President Clinton speak to a meeting of the Delta Grassroots Caucus in Little Rock a few weeks ago when I began thinking about that day on the barge.

Here’s how James Saggus of The Associated Press previewed the event in a story on May 12, 1988: “The governors of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana will join forces aboard a Mississippi River barge Friday for a fight against the Delta region’s depressed economy. Govs. Ray Mabus of Mississippi, Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Louisiana’s Buddy Roemer will sign an agreement to address chronic problems of unemployment, illiteracy and poverty in fertile farmlands along the river. … Mabus said he hoped the ceremony would mark ‘the start of a regional economic development effort, one that will signal a new focus on our region of the country and attract international investments and national attention to the three-state region.’ Statistics show the Arkansas and Mississippi counties and Louisiana parishes in the Delta region — the flatlands on both sides of the river from Memphis to Natchez — are among the nation’s poorest, many with poverty levels above 50 percent.”

All three states had young governors with national political ambitions. It was often suggested in the late 1980s that one of them might become president.

“If we are successful, the country succeeds,” Mabus said that day in Rosedale. “We cannot have a truly vibrant country if we have pockets of despair, if there are places that do not fully share in the American dream.”

So here we are a quarter of a century later.

Clinton, of course, spent eight years in the White House.

I spent almost four years working on Delta issues in the administration of his successor. I was appointed by President Bush to serve on the Delta Regional Authority, which had been created in the final months of the Clinton administration.

Now it’s the spring of 2013, and Clinton is speaking on a Thursday night about the problems of the Delta. I’m sitting there taking notes, just as I would always do 25 years ago when I would cover Clinton in my job as Washington bureau chief of the Arkansas Democrat. It doesn’t seem much has changed in 25 years.

Are the problems of the Delta that intractable?

Will we still be talking about the same problems 25 years from now?

I learned a lot about the Delta by working full time on its issues and traveling its highways day after day. It was quite an education. I studied its history and came to the conclusion that, at least in my lifetime, most true Delta counties will never have the population bases they had 60 or 70 years ago.

The tens of thousands of sharecroppers who were once required to grow big crops of cotton are long gone from the region. Their children and grandchildren are never coming back. People go where the jobs are.

For too long our approach to economic development has been based on the idea that “bigger is better.” The goal was to find that manufacturing plant that would suddenly bring 300 or 400 jobs to town. Those kinds of industrial successes are going to become increasingly rare.

I came to the conclusion that Delta communities would have to get away from the idea that “bigger is better” and adopt the motto that “better is better.”

Concede the fact that the population of your town will never be as big as it once was while at the same time vowing that the community will work to ensure that the public schools are better, the hospital is more advanced, the streets are cleaner, race relations are improved, etc.

See what I mean?

Better is better.

Looking to the future, Clinton pointed to the good news: The Delta still has some of the world’s richest land. As the world’s population increases and the United States takes on more responsibility for feeding people, that land will become ever more valuable.

As land increases in value, the tax base improves.

Consider these facts just about Arkansas:

— The state is in the top 25 nationally in the production of 24 agricultural commodities, accounting for more than $16 billion of value added to the state each year.

— Arkansas continues to rank first nationally in rice production, growing about 48 percent of all U.S. rice. Rice is the state’s top agricultural export and is grown on more than 1.3 million acres of land.

— The value of rice exports from Arkansas is $918 million annually. Soybeans are next at $807 million. Rice and soybean prices have been high the past few years.

— The overall value of rice production is valued at almost $2 billion annually. Records were broken last year as rice growers in the state produced 7,340 pounds per acre, up 8 percent from 2011.

— Arkansas ranks third nationally in the production of cotton (with an export value of $473 million) and sixth in the production of grain sorghum.

— The state ranks second in overall aquaculture production and leads the nation in baitfish production, raising more than 80 percent of all U.S. baitfish. Arkansas also leads the nation in the production of largemouth bass for stocker fish, hybrid striped bass fry and Chinese carp.

Danny Kennedy of Riceland Foods does the math: “Today’s world population of 6.8 billion people is expected to grow to 9.1 billion by the year 2050. About half the earth’s population consumes rice as a primary component of their diets. World rice consumption will continue to increase in order to feed the expanding population.”

The world population growth also bodes well for the state’s soybean industry — soybeans are grown in more than 50 of the state’s 75 counties — and its expanding corn sector.

There’s also increased agricultural diversification in the Arkansas Delta. For instance, the state’s peanut crop grew from 600 acres in 2009 to 18,000 acres in 2012. Sweet potato acreage also is increasing.

Yes, the Delta will have fewer people. But the land will be worth more than ever. How do we leverage that to help those still living in the region?

There are two economic keys for the Arkansas Delta as we look out 10 to 20 years:

— Increased trade opportunities and public investment in the infrastructure (navigable rivers, ports, intermodel facilities, etc.) that enhance foreign trade. As far back as 1996, the Federal Highway Administration was noting in a report: “The most significant changes for the Delta economy have been improved access  to intermodal transportation terminals, combined with the increased capacity of those terminals. This has greatly strengthened the region’s commercial linkage to the rest of the nation and to important international markets around the world.”

— More value-added processing for agricultural products. Rather than simply shipping out commodities, the Delta must find additional ways to refine and process those commodities for consumers.

The most frustrating thing in my time with the DRA was the idea on the part of so-called local leaders that a small government agency could somehow change the economic trajectory of the past 50 years.

In his visit to Little Rock earlier this month, Clinton said: “There’s never going to be enough government money to take a poor region of America out of the dumps all by itself. You’ve got to have private-sector growth. And in order to have private-sector growth, you’ve got to have good government policy.”

In the Delta, much of the private-sector growth will be driven by agriculture. So when we talk about good government policy, we’re talking about farm policy, free-trade agreements, port investments and the like.

Clinton, who has always been an optimist at heart, said his “instinct is that the country is due for a pretty good recovery. There is going to be a revival of economic fortunes in rural America. The real questions should be: How do you speed it up? How do you make it sustainable?”

The Arkansas Delta was built first through the harvest of hardwood timber (virgin timber was shipped north to build homes and businesses in places such as St. Louis and Chicago) and later by cotton.

With more and more mouths to feed in the decades ahead, it appears the region’s salvation now will be rice, soybeans, corn, wheat and grain sorghum.

“There’s nothing wrong with people who live in the Delta,” Clinton said. “I just want you all to know that I do believe, after all of these decades, that you’re going to get rewarded if you just stay with it.”

Perhaps the barge that served as a political stage 25 years ago can in the future play a role in hauling grain to hungry people in India and China.

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10 must-have dishes before you die

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

You’ll have to pick up the May edition of Soiree magazine for the full story (and photos that will make your mouth water).

But here’s what happened: Jennifer Pyron, the magazine’s editor, called and asked if I would come up with a list of the 10 restaurant dishes in the Little Rock area that you simply must have before you die.

I like a lot of things. And Little Rock has a good restaurant scene. This was not an easy assignment.

Here’s what I decided: I would go with the tried and true, the kinds of food that longtime Little Rock residents find themselves craving as they drive home at night.

There are finer restaurants than the ones I put on my list.

There are fancier dishes.

I decided to stay away from new recipes. No foam. No molecular gastronomy. The restaurants needed to have been around for several decades to prove their staying power.

Look, Little Rock is becoming one of the best places to dine out in the South. The city is now filled with exciting restaurants, food trucks, talented food bloggers and ambitious chefs. It’s quite a food scene.

I’m energized by that.

Yet the list I came up with spoke to my heart; the heart of a country boy who doesn’t want sugar in his cornbread, wants his country ham to be fried, wishes his wife would let him join the Bacon of the Month Club and could stand to lose a few pounds.

Here goes:

1. Ribs at Sims with a side of greens and cornbread — Sims just screams “quintessential Little Rock” to me. Little Rock is a true Southern city, and it doesn’t get more Southern than ribs, greens and cornbread. I miss the old location on 33rd Street, but the fact remains that this is a place that has been around since 1937. In a city that loves its barbecue, Sims is a shrine.

2. Chopped pork plate at the White Pig Inn — Here we go with the barbecue again. There’s a reason that a photo of the White Pig’s sign is at the top of this blog. This restaurant has been around since 1920, when U.S. Highway 70 was one of the main east-west routes in the country. I like family places, and the White Pig has been in the Seaton family for three generations. The current building is fairly new (built in 1984), but take a look at all the history on the walls.

3. Eggplant casserole and egg custard pie at Franke’s — I know, I know. You’re going to order more than just eggplant casserole and egg custard pie as you go through that line. There’s fried chicken, roast beef, chicken livers, fried okra, turnip greens and more to eat. But I consider the above two dishes the ones that most define this Arkansas classic. C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop in downtown Little Rock in 1919. By 1922, it was a full bakery. In 1924, he opened Franke’s Cafeteria on Capitol Avenue in downtown Little Rock. The original cafeteria closed in 1960, but two Little Rock locations remain. You will find me at the downtown location often.

4. Buffalo ribs at the Lassis Inn — You Yankees think this is a four-legged mammal, right? You’re wrong. You’re the same people who refuse to believe us when we tell you that rice and gravy and macaroni and cheese are classified as vegetables here in the South. This buffalo is the bottom-dwelling fish pulled by commercial fishermen from the slow-moving rivers of east Arkansas. The ribs are about five inches in length. Tell my friend Elihue Washington that I sent you.

5. Tamales at Doe’s — I realize that you’re likely to order a steak if you’re going to Doe’s for dinner. Still, you must have an appetizer of tamales. If it’s lunch, the tamales can be your meal. George Eldridge has been operating the Little Rock location of Doe’s since 1988. Was it Hunter S. Thompson or P.J. O’Rourke who tried to eat a tamale with the shuck still on when they came to Doe’s to interview Bill Clinton in 1992?

6. The hubcap burger at Cotham’s — The Little Rock location will suffice (though I always have a fern bar flashback to TGI Friday’s and my younger days when I’m in there), but it’s better to be out in the 1917 building at Scott, which has been serving food since 1984. Politicians such as the aforementioned Bill Clinton and David Pryor made the Scott location of Cotham’s famous. What’s that? You say you cannot eat an entire hubcap burger? Then you’ve come to the wrong blog.

7. Gumbo at the Oyster Bar — The Oyster Bar has been around since 1975, but it looks like it has been there since 1924, when the building it occupies in Stifft Station was built to house a grocery story. Yes, it’s a dive. I especially like the fact that they saved the old refrigerator door with memorable bumper stickers attached. Check out the one dealing with that pass interfence call against SMU. Some of us still remember that call. The Hogs wuz robbed.

8. Smoked turkey sandwich and a cherry limeade at Burge’s — The original Burge’s in Lewisville is outside the geographic scope of this assignment, but the Heights location in Little Rock will do since it has been around for 36 years. Lots of rich, tanned Heights moms and their spoiled kids will be running around on Saturdays to take part in what’s a family tradition for many Little Rockians. After moving to Lewisville from Shreveport in 1953, Alden Burge began smoking turkeys in the back yard for friends and family members. Soon, he was selling smoked turkey and chicken dinners before Friday night football games. He bought a dairy bar in 1962 at the intersection of Arkansas Highway 29 and U.S. Highway 82 in Lewisville. The folks who work for Burge’s in Little Rock follow Mr. Burge’s 1950s instructions for smoking those turkeys.

9. Pimento cheese at the Capital Bar & Grill — Sometimes a Southerner simply must have pimento cheese, and no one does it better than the folks at the Capital. Get it as an appetizer with those homemade soda crackers, order a pimento cheese sandwich or have it on the burger. I’m craving it right now.

10. The foot-long chili dog at the Buffalo Grill and the chopped steak at the Faded Rose — OK, I cheated. I listed two restaurants. Here’s why: I first moved to Little Rock in late 1981 to work as a sportswriter at the Arkansas Democrat. I moved into the Rebsamen Park Apartments (cheap and already furnished, along with very thin walls). The Buffalo Grill opened just down the street in 1981. The Faded Rose was opened by New Orleans native Ed David the next year. I would work in those days until about 1 a.m., get something to eat at Steak & Egg (where the Red Door is now), go home and read and then sleep until the crack of noon. Then I would go to one of those two restaurants. I often would have that gut bomb they call the Paul’s chili dog at Buffalo Grill with chili, cheddar cheese, mustard, onion and slaw. On the days when I went next door to the Faded Rose, I would start with the Creole soaked salad (mixed lettuce, chopped tomatoes and green olives tossed in a garlic vinaigrette just like the Creole Sicilian joints do it in New Orleans). That would be followed by the chopped sirloin, which comes in a lemon butter sauce with a big slice of grilled onion on top. Of course, there were potato wedges with buttermilk dressing to dip them in.

Like I said, no foam or molecular gastronomy on this list.

What dishes make your list in Pulaski County?

Let me hear from you in the comment section below.

Meanwhile, I’ll see you in Soiree along with the “beautiful people” who are holding wine glasses and forcing a smile in a too-tight tux.

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Tales from the South: Randy Tardy

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

There was no way I was going to say “no” to this request.

Walter B. Walker was born and raised at Helena. He moved to Little Rock in 1962 and worked for the Darragh Co., the Mountaire Corp. and Orbit Valve Co. before retiring in 1993.

Walter has been friends with fellow Helena native Randy Tardy since the first grade.

“I don’t think a week has gone by since 1939 that we haven’t talked at least once,” Walter told me.

I’ve only been friends with Randy since 1981, when I went to work for the Arkansas Democrat as a sportswriter. Randy was a business writer at the newspaper for a quarter of a century, and a darn good one.

He’s also a great storyteller, especially stories of his early life when Helena was a prosperous port city on the Mississippi River. Randy is in hospice as I write this. It was Walter’s idea to contact Paula Morell, the talented executive producer and host of “Tales from the South.”

His plan was to have some friends of Randy read pieces Randy had written. They would be read during the weekly taping of the radio show at the Starving Artist Cafe in downtown North Little Rock.

Morell agreed to the idea, and so I found myself at the Starving Artist on Tuesday night reading stories along with Walter and Harvey Joe Sanner of Des Arc. A full house listened.

“Tales from the South,” which airs each Thursday at 7 p.m. on Little Rock station KUAR-FM, 89.1, is quite a phenomenon. It began as a single show seven years ago. It’s now syndicated by the World Radio Network, where it airs three times a week on WRN Europe, twice a week on WRN Asia and twice a week on WRN Africa.

The show also can be heard on numerous public radio stations across the country.

The weekly taping before a live audience features writers reading their stories. All stories must be true. Past participants have included people ranging from Judge Reinhold to Jill Conner Browne to David Pryor.

I only wish I could have read a story by Randy about the old second-floor newsroom at the Democrat. When I went to work there in 1981, it was still like something out of the 1931 movie “The Front Page.” There was trash on the floor and wires running everywhere. The air was thick with smoke, and ashtrays were overflowing. Finding a chair that wasn’t broken was a challenge.

Randy used to claim he was going to write a book titled “Ray 85.” Here’s the story behind that: The late Ray Hobbs was the city editor in those days, and the main number to the city desk was 378-3485. Clerks would answer the phone and then scream at the top of their lungs for the city editor to pick up on that line.

“Ray 85!”

Frank Fellone, in a column in Monday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, described that old newsroom as a place “so crowded, noisy and unkempt that reporter Randy Tardy once described it as being like Bhopal, India, at rush hour.”

Randy loved the newspaper business, and he loved every form of transportation. His idea of a day off was to go to the airport to watch planes take off and land, to the banks of the Arkansas River to watch the barges go by or to the train station to watch the trains as they passed.

I like Helena, I enjoy radio and I’m intrigued by the history of KFFA-AM. So I had no complaints Tuesday night when Walter asked me to read about those subjects.

Here’s part of what I read. The words are those of my friend of more than three decades, Randy Tardy:

“I worked at radio station KFFA-AM, 1360, in Helena from 1956 until July 1959. I set up locally prepared newscasts and delivered them, using information gathered from local sources, our Associated Press newswire, handouts and local interviews.

“As I recall, my live newscasts were weekdays at 8 a.m., noon, 5 p.m. and a 6:15 p.m. wrap-up of the day for 15 minutes. My noon program was unique. It immediately preceded the 12:15 p.m. broadcast of ‘King Biscuit Time,’ which had been on the air since around 1941 and is still going.

“The musicians stored their instruments in a corner of my newsroom. So did the janitor with his mops, brooms and bucket. I even had a vertical rack of glowing and buzzing radio tubes, which kept the station’s signal going out.

“During one noon show, I was talking about an explosion of some kind along the Gulf Coast when the King Biscuit drummer came in to get his instrument. He had trouble holding onto it. As I was reading the story, there was a ‘wham’ behind me. It was timed right with the word ‘explosion’ as I was reading the story. It was not a funny story, but the timing almost got to me. It was hard to get through the rest of the newscast.

“I looked at the drummer with my microphone still on. He said, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Randy, I didn’t go to do that.’ I knew he didn’t, but I remember that moment until this day. I believe that drum, with its red lettering, is still around and on display at the Delta Cultural Center.

“When I would come into the station from making my rounds of the police department, fire station and courts, I would park out front on York Street and put a nickel in the parking meter. Often, Dudlow, the King Biscuit piano player, would be standing there. This time he asked me if I could give him a dime to ‘get me some soda crackers and a little bologna.’

“That day I had a pocket filled with quarters because the gas station I had just stopped at was out of dollar bills. I had put five gallons of gas in my 1955 Pontiac and was expecting $4 in change. I got it, but not in bills. They gave me the change in quarters. They were out of bills.

“‘Here, Dudlow, here’s a quarter,’ I said. ‘Go have yourself a big lunch.’ He thanked me over and over. He looked at the quarter and said, ‘This will really help me tickle them ivories.’

“Those were interesting times. Little did I know that the broadcast would live on for decades and become the centerpiece of an internationally known blues festival. Sunshine Sonny Payne was at KFFA then. He’s still there as of this writing, a legend himself.

“When folks sometime refer to me as a pioneer radio broadcaster, I tell them that I never looked upon myself as a pioneer. But there weren’t too many of us around back then. One is my old friend H.R. ‘Herbie’ Byrd, who toiled for early news operations at several radio stations. I remember him best as the news voice of Little Rock station KLRA-AM, 1010, which has been off the air for years.

“Life goes on, but I wish news today were the real news we tried to deliver back then.”

Nice memories from Randy Tardy.

They’re holding the third annual Arkansas Delta Rockabilly Festival in Helena this weekend. The likes of the Kentucky Headhunters, Ben “Cooter” Jones, The Cate Brothers, Sonny Burgess and the Legendary Pacers and Wanda Jackson will be there.

Rockabilly got its start in the Memphis area in the 1950s. I wish Randy could be there for the festival. I have no doubt he would enjoy it, especially if he had a spot atop the levee where he could also see those barges moving up and down the Mighty Mississippi, the river that so defined his youth.

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