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The fifth and finest season

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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