Feb 24, 2006
By: JOHN PIESEN
There remains 10 weeks to the first Saturday in May, but it would shock no one - certainly not this correspondent - if, for the third straight year, the road to the Kentucky Derby leads directly through the resort community of Hot Springs, Ark.
Oaklawn Park, a 100-year-old racetrack located in downtown Hot Springs, doesn't generate the national buzz of Gulfstream or Santa Anita, although its daily attendance dwarfs those big-time racetracks on a regular basis.
But for years winners of Triple Crown events have emerged from Oaklawn - see Temperence Hill, Lil E Tee, Pine Bluff, Grindstone, Victory Gallop, Sonny's Halo, Tank's Prospect and Caveat.
And then came Smarty Jones in 2004.
And then came Afleet Alex in 2005.
Both superstars wintered at Oaklawn, both won the Arkansas Derby, and, between them, they went on to win four of the last six Triple Crown races, and the last two Eclipse Awards for 3-year-olds.
The fact that both were robbed of Horse of the Year is a column for another day.
No one knows yet if there is a Smarty Jones or Afleet Alex on the Oaklawn backstretch this year. But top to bottom this is the strongest 3-year-old division ever in Hot Springs, and it would be no surprise to see an Oaklawn horse again turn up in the winner's circle at Churchill, Pimlico and/or Belmont.
The Southwest Stakes was to be the first step on the Oaklawn road to the Triple Crown last Saturday, but the weekend of racing was cancelled because of a frozen track. As a result, the Southwest will be run this Saturday, and it will pay to visit a simulcast site to watch it.
Lawyer Ron will be the heavy favorite. After all, he is 4-for-4 on dirt by a total of 30 lengths, and has by far the best Beyer number (106).
But there are several other 3-year-olds hanging at Oaklawn, any one of whom can be a star.
Here's a rundown:
RED RAYMOND: Won the Ellis Juvenile, and was third in the Arlington Futurity. He was regarded as trainer Bob Holthus' best Derby hopeful until Lawyer Ron came along. Does his best running in the stretch.
MUSIC SCHOOL: A ¾-brother to 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft, this colt is 2-for-2 for Hall of Fame nominee Neil Howard. Looks and acts like a runner.
STEPPENWOLFER: Remember Capote Belle a few years back. This colt hails from the same connections - owners Bob and Lawana Low, and trainer Danny Peitz. He's a big strapping gray who was named for the '60s rock group. He'll improve as the distances stretch out.
TRAVELIN LEROY: Broke his maiden first pop last spring at Belmont by a pole, and has been training lights out at Oaklawn. His owner, Eclipse winner Michael Gill, says he's the best horse he's ever had.
FIDRYCH: Baseball fans remember Mark (The Bird) Fidrych from the '70s. Well, this guy is named for The Bird. He may not be trainer Servis' next Smarty Jones, but he has a world of potential.
BRILLIANT: This is a stable mate of Music School owned by the Mill House people. He crushed a strong maiden field first out at Oaklawn, and had a troubled trip for second next time. He'll just keep getting better.
MARK OF SUCCESS: Won his first two starts for trainer Dallas Stewart, and was second to Lawyer Ron in Louisiana. He'll get a chance to exact revenge at a price in the Southwest.
Well, that's it. Don't say you weren't warned about the Oaklawn 3-year-olds.
At this writing, Lawyer Ron is 25-1 in the Vegas futures. He'll be a lot less Sunday if he wins the Southwest as expected.
Elsewhere on the Triple Crown trail.
I didn't include Private Vow among the Oaklawn 3-year-olds, only because he's not actually on the grounds. But the colt worked three-quarters in 1:15 yesterday at Palm Meadows in Florida, and, afterwards, trainer Asmussen told me there is an excellent chance that this colt will ship to Hot Springs for the Rebel.
A couple of things about Private Vow:
This is the best 3-year-old Asmussen has ever trained.
Despite not having started this year, he is one-two in most Derby Top Tens. My man Steve Haskin has him first.
Asmussen won two Rebels in the last five years.
And Asmussen tells me that Shawn Bridgmohan will ride Private Vow through the Triple Crown (presuming jockey Bailey doesn't come out of retirement).
You have to take Derby Top Tens with a proverbial grain of salt. I know this for a fact because I introduced Derby Top Tens back in the '80s in the New York Post.
Just a year ago, Sun King beat a bunch of manes and tails at Tampa Bay Downs, and, presto, spiked to No. 1 in a lot of the polls.
Bluegrass Cat accomplished the same feat last Saturday at Tampa, and, behold, he is now a consensus No. 1.
Personally, my Top Ten at the moment is:
- Lawyer Ron
- Private Vow
- Achilles of Troy
- Music School
- Bluegrass Cat
- Point Determined
Trainer Harty was preparing to ship Barbican from south Florida to Hot Springs for the Southwest, but the colt got sick. Nothing serious.
You won't have to wait long for the next Derby prep.
Tomorrow (Wednesday) at Gulfstream, High Cotton and Strong Contender make their season debuts in the mile allowance feature.
High Cotton, who was second to Private Vow in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last Fall at Churchill, is one of trainer Pletcher's arsenal of 3-year-olds, and Strong Contender hails from the same connections - Oxley and Ward - as 2001 Derby winner Monarchos. Tim Ritchey, who trained Afleet Alex, has Roamin Murphy, a six-length winner of his lone start, in the race.
Finally, this has been a rough few days in the racing community.
Last Friday, we lost owners Bob Lewis and Roy Chapman.
Chapman, of course, owned Smarty Jones, and Lewis campaigned a galaxy of champions, including Silver Charm and Charismatic.
In an incredible irony, Chapman and Lewis, who passed away within minutes of each other, both came within inches of winning the Triple Crown.
Also leaving us was Sam Rubin, owner of the legendary John Henry.
And Mike Quinn, who, as president of Quinn Communications, was an extremely popular figure in New York and New Jersey press boxes for a quarter-century, passed away Saturday at the age of 55.
Before his passing, Mike told his family that he didn't want a funeral or memorial service. He just wanted his friends to do a good deed for some one else.
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