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A Derby Day to remember

Red Smith has long been recognized as one of the greatest sportswriters in American history.

He spent more than four decades writing columns, first for the New York Herald Tribune and later for The New York Times.

Smith, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for distinguished commentary, once said: “There are more stories per square foot at the racetrack than anywhere else in sports. If there are 80 horses running today, there are at least 80 stories, most of them more interesting than who won or lost a ballgame.”

I thought of Red Smith’s words as I drove down Central Avenue shortly after 2 p.m. Saturday.

It was Derby Day at Oaklawn, and the town was hopping. There were so many potential stories here, I thought to myself, thinking yet again like the newspaper editor I once was.

I was late arriving at the track — the gates had opened at 10 a.m. and the first of 12 races had exited the starting gate at 12:05 p.m. — because I had spent the morning attending the 70th annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association in Little Rock.

Perhaps it was better this way. I avoided the morning traffic jam, I still arrived in plenty of time for the Arkansas Derby and I was able to contemplate the magnitude of this event as I looked at the parking lots, the yards and the side streets filled with cars.

Following the deadly storms of Thursday night and the cold winds of Friday, the weather Saturday could not have been more beautiful. A crowd of 62,364 — numbers surpassed in this state only by a Razorback football game in Fayetteville — turned out to watch a long shot with Arkansas owners win the Arkansas Derby.

I have a hard time remembering a better day at the track. It’s not about winning money for me. I can have a fine time without ever placing a bet. It’s about people watching, visiting with friends, eating and soaking in the unique atmosphere of Derby Day.

When you think about it, you realize that thoroughbred racing is the only professional sport in which our state is in the major leagues.

We don’t have a major league baseball team.

We don’t have an NBA, NFL or NHL team.

But we do have Oaklawn. With the success of the 3-year-olds that have competed in this race in recent years, the Arkansas Derby certainly has solidified its standing as a leading Triple Crown prep race.

It was good to see that the state’s top two sports columnists — Wally Hall and Harry King — were at Oaklawn on Saturday. Frankly, it amazes me that Little Rock television stations will lead their sportscasts with what in essence is a glorified football practice rather than one of the top events in American racing.

Oh well.

My print bias is showing.

In the introduction to a collection of stories on thoroughbred racing titled “Finished Lines,” Frank Scatoni writes: “There is an old saying, often attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, that adequately sums up man’s relationship with the horse: ‘There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.’

“Anyone, from the smallest child to the most wizened old curmudgeon, who has ever seen a horse run — unfettered, graceful and with the look of eagles in his eyes — knows this saying to be true. Men, women and children alike find their affections running deep for the thoroughbred.

“Unlike any other sport (with the possible exception of baseball), horse racing has been a breeding ground for quality literature. Talented writers have found the grace, beauty and sheer athleticism of the thoroughbred the inspiration for which to wax poetic about the sport, the animal and, most important, man’s relation — physical, spiritual and psychological — to this near-perfect creature and the races it runs.

“William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway wrote about the sport: Faulkner about the 1955 Kentucky Derby showdown between Swaps and Nashua; Hemingway — in ‘A False Spring’ — about attending the jump races in France, penniless and in dire need of a long shot.

“Hunter S. Thompson, offbeat chronicler of America’s political traditions, spent a week at Churchill Downs covering the 1970 Kentucky Derby, won by 15-1 shot Dust Commander. Humorist A.J. Liebling, who spent many a year penning columns for The New Yorker, was a huge fan of the sport and wrote about it regularly for that bastion of literary tradition. Sports Illustrated hit the newsstands in 1954 to give us almost 50 years of sophisticated racing coverage with Whitney Tower and William Nack.”

Indeed, Saturday was the kind of day that invites colorful prose. I’ll try to spare you my own feeble attempts to write eloquently on the subject of a Derby Day held on a perfect April afternoon in Hot Springs with the exception of these observations:

— I was glad to see Charles Cella’s thoroughbred, Uncle Brent, win The Northern Spur stakes race. Arkansas is fortunate to have one of the few family-owned tracks remaining in the country, especially since the man known around the track as CJC has raised his own children to share his love for the sport and for Hot Springs.

The Cellas bring a touch of class to Oaklawn, never allowing the gaming aspect to overcome the color and tradition of thoroughbred racing.

“People waste countless hours debating whether thoroughbred racing is a sport or a form of gambling, when the answer is simple and obvious: It’s both,” Daily Racing Form editor Steven Crist wrote in “Finished Lines.” “Without wagering, which ultimately provides all of the economic fuel for the racing game, only a few wealthy eccentrics would raise horses, as if they were champion orchids or poodles. Without the emotional impact of the sport that surrounds the gambling, racing would be no more compelling than jai-alai or slot machines, a way of generating numbers and payoffs.”

For the Cellas, this family tradition is about more than generating numbers.

— I like the addition of the corporate tents on the infield for the Racing Festival of the South. It gives the Arkansas Derby the feel of a Triple Crown race and introduces new people to the sport.

— I noticed more hats on ladies than ever before this year. Hats have always been de rigueur for the Kentucky Derby. Now, the trend seems to be growing for the Arkansas Derby. It’s a welcome trend. Go ahead, ladies. Start shopping for the perfect hat for next year’s Arkansas Derby.

— Thanks for keeping me on your list to receive an Arkansas Derby tie, Mr. Cella and Eric Jackson. Those silk ties from Italy are another outstanding tradition (there’s a well-written story on that tradition in the April issue of Arkansas Life magazine). The 2011 tie is especially beautiful. I wore it to the track on Saturday, and I wore it again today. Heck, Harry King and I still wear Arkansas Derby ties from the early 1980s.

Melissa — my wife of almost 22 years who I hauled to both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness infields shortly after we were engaged in 1989 — and I stayed until the end on Saturday. As the crowd cleared out and the sun began to set, we stood along the rail to watch the marathon (a mile and three quarters) known as The Trails End, a race that didn’t begin until almost 7 p.m.

The traffic remained gridlocked on Central Avenue even after that 12th race, so we stepped into Stubby’s so I could indulge in some ribs.

A man at the next table — a fellow who obviously attends big races across the country — was talking on his cell phone to a friend.

“I’ll see you in Kentucky,” he said. “I wish you could have been here today. It’s not Santa Anita, but I like it down here.”

So do we.

For me, Arkansas Derby Day is a special day on my calendar — marked annually along with events such as the Grady Fish Fry, the Battle of the Ravine, the first day of dove season and the Slovak Oyster Supper.

I saw old friend Kelley Bass on the infield Saturday. He was attending his 32nd consecutive Arkansas Derby.

I can claim no such record. But since I’ve placed eating an Oaklawn burger on the infield on Arkansas Derby Day among the entries on the Natural State bucket list, it was fitting that I had two Oaklawn burgers in my hand at the time.

One for me.

One for Melissa.

Yes, I still left room for those Stubby’s ribs. By 8:15 p.m., the traffic on Central Avenue was moving again. We got in the car and said so long to live racing for another year.

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