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Apple Blossom fever

If you don’t already have a reserved seat at Oaklawn for the Apple Blossom Invitational on April 9 — or if friends have not already invited you to sit in their box — plan on being in the infield or spending some serious cash for reserved seats.

Go to and you’ll find reserved seats starting at $249 for that Friday afternoon. When I checked today, a table for the day in the Post Parade Restaurant was going for $1,765. A box near the finish line was going for $2,353 (how do you come up with that number?) and a box down front against the windows was going for $3,900.

I must disagree a bit with my friend and former boss Wally Hall, who wrote this morning that the Apple Blossom will be the greatest sporting event in the state’s history. As stated in an earlier post, that title will continue to rest with the 1969 Arkansas-Texas football game. After all, it was the only college football game being played on that first Saturday in December, and people only had three networks to chose from in those days.

The Apple Blossom will be run on a Friday afternoon rather than a Saturday. Because of that, most Americans won’t see it on television. They will read about it later. Yes, the crowd in Hot Springs on April 9 will be much larger than the crowd in Razorback Stadium was on that drizzly day 40 years ago. But the national significance of the race just won’t be the same. I doubt the president will attend and present the trophy afterward (though it would be neat if he did).

Still, it’s big. It’s big for Hot Springs, and it’s big for Arkansas.

As longtime St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz wrote of the planned race between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta: “It’s the matchup that thoroughbred fans have been waiting for. Charles Cella, embracing the role of matchmaker, started making calls last fall. It didn’t take long for him to get a commitment from Jerry Moss, Zenyatta’s primary owner. Jess Jackson, who owns Rachel Alexandra, wasn’t as agreeable initially, but Cella eventually won him over.”

Miklasz goes on to write that Cella, a St. Louis businessman whose family has a long history in the city, has been “absolutely great for the racing industry. He helped generate significant star power for Smarty Jones in 2005 by setting up a $5 million bonus incentive that had racing fans and media buzzing (yes, ol’ Bernie made a mistake. That was in 2004. You can tell Missouri is not much of a racing state).

“And the charismatic Smarty Jones won the big prize for his owners by prevailing in the Kentucky Derby after winning the Rebel States and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn. Cella paid up the $5 million and said it was worth every dollar.

“A showdown between the undefeated mare Zenyatta and 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra will spark a tremendous amount of positive interest in the sport. But there is some risk involved; the $5 million purse stands only if both princesses show up for the Apple Blossom. And there’s a strong chance that both starlets will have one prep race before heading to Oaklawn, so there’s always the possibility of injury or loss of form.”

Cella told his hometown newspaper: “It sets up spectacularly. It’s East vs. West. It’s the 2009 Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra, vs. No. 2. It’s a horse who has never lost, Zenyatta, vs. the horse, Rachel Alexandra, that did not lose in 2009.”

Rachel Alexandra breezed six furlongs in 1:14 Wednesday over a fast track at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. She will run there March 13 in the New Orleans Ladies Stakes. Trainer Steve Asmussen called the workout “ideal” and “way easier” than her Feb. 18 workout when she went five furlongs.

Back in Hot Springs, meanwhile, Steve Arrison is at it again over at the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau. He’s printing 50,000 trading cards of the two thoroughbreds to give out as free souvenirs.

“We’ve done a series of trading cards in the past,” Arrison said. “Most of those have featured President Bill Clinton and his connection to his hometown of Hot Springs. We did a card featuring the racehorse Smarty Jones, which proved tremendously popular with the public.”

The first public distribution of the cards will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Hot Springs Visitor Center in the Hill Wheatley Plaza on Central Avenue. Oaklawn will disribute free copies of the cards the following Saturday.

If the weather is good, how many people do you think will be at Oaklawn on April 9? It’s a weekday remember, but it might be an unofficial holiday in Arkansas. Will there be 70,000? 80,000? More?

The buildup to this race might be as fun as the race itself.

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