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Jan 21, 2011



In case you missed it, I was fortunate to kick off the Oaklawn Park meet with a pair of double-digit winners from only four selections on the red-hot John Piesen Hot Line (click here for my daily selections or call 1-888-612-2283).

The winners were Backwater Blues ($21.80) on Sunday, and Caleb's Posse ($10.40) on Monday in the Smarty Jones Stakes, the first leg on the OP road to the Triple Crown.

These off-the-bat winners were not by accident.

I spent 15 years covering Oaklawn for the Racing Form, and for the OP publicity department...and, during the course of that decade and a half; I was doing a lot more than enjoying the sights. I was studying nine (or 10) races a day, and learning the secrets of how to hit winners (and gimmicks) at a traditionally very difficult venue to succeed.

Backwater Blues was a simple choice.

His Eastern form was inconsistent, but trainer Jones has a history of bringing his young stock to Hot Springs ready to run. And then he thew main man Saez up from the outside post, the place to be going six furlongs at the Arkansas track.

With Saez contributing a gutsy,rail-skimming ride, Backwater Blues gunned down the fence, and won going away. No DRF handicapper, or the local handicapper had given him a whiff.

Same goes for Caleb's Posse,

While the "experts" portrayed the Smarty Jones as a match between Grant Jack and Archarcharch, I focused in on Caleb's Posse, a distant third choice in the betting.

Fog obscured most of the race from view, but when they came out of the fog in mid-stretch, there was Caleb's Posse blowing 'em away.

One reason I liked CP was the value.

When Grant Jack and Caleb's Posse last met, in a Chicago stake at the same mile distance, Grant Jack was 14-1 and Caleb's Posse 9-10. The difference in odds tells you all you need to know about who was the better horse.

Grant Jack got the trip that day, and won by a length, while CP got stuck in traffic, and checked in seventh.

This time, Caleb's Posse had the rail, where you certainly want to be going a mile at Oaklawn.

He also had the right trainer: -- a young fellow named Donnie K. Von Hemel.

In my 15 years at Oaklawn, I learned that you don't mess with Donnie K. Von Hemel -- not to be confused with his father Don Von Hemel,  and his brother Kelly Von Hemel.

In fact, let me quote from the lead article (written by yours truly) in the February issue of American Turf Monthly -- which was on the street in mid-January.

"Oaklawn traditionally is one of the most difficult venues in the land to pick winners.  Is the Kentucky horse better than the Texas horse? He or she should be because Kentucky racing at first blush is so much superior to Texas and Oklahoma racing.

"But go tell that to Donnie K. Von Hemel, a fixture on the Texas-Oklahoma circuit. Leave out a Donnie Von runner at your own peril. Not a day seems to go by at Oaklawn without at least one seemingly nondescript Von Hemel runner knocking off a gateful of Kentucky bluebloods.

Thank you Caleb's Posse,

Eddie Razo, whose agent is the recently retired Tim Doocy, rode Caleb's Posse for Donnie K, and no doubt will ride more for the barn, especially because Doocy won scores of races for DKVH.

But Donnie K's main man has been, and will continue to be Cliff Berry. That is one lethal partnership. Berry doesn't get much ink, but he's a solid rider, as his recent 7-for-7 evening at Remington, and his OP stakes wins on Win Willy will attest.

Other trainer-jockey combos to watch at OP are Lukas/Thompson; Fires-Court; Asmussen Gryder; Moquette/Borel; Borel/Borel, and, of course Jones/Saez.

I also had the good fortune last weekend to go 2-for-4 at Gulfstream  Park, nailing Adirondack Summer in a minor stake at $11.40, and Hugh and Me at $6.80.

Adirondack Summer was remarkable because he closed seven-wide, got up a nose, and survived a long inquiry. Hugh and Me was merely another successful product of the Kelly Breen/Joe Bravo team, which has been a force on the Jersey/Florida circuit for years.

In fact, Breen has been so good for so long, I can barely remember the time when he broke in under Team Perkins.

Also, don't forget that trainer Sacco has a better one in the barn than Feel That Fire, who fueled the $95 HL cold tri two weeks back.

Stay tuned.

Otherwise, Gulfstream, as usual, is playing speed. Most often, the horses who are one-two turning for home are one-two at the wire.

And, in case you haven't noticed, it's the same thing at Aqueduct and at Santa Anita. First out, first home, is often the case.

Just look at Blind Luck for instance.

After the Santa Anita-based filly won the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly, trainer Hollendorfer, who, along with Gasper Moschera, should be in the Hall of Fame, announced that he will run Blind Luck out-of-town rather than expose the stretch-running filly again to the speed-biased  Santa Anita track.

Everyone wanted to see Anita return to a dirt surface, but the foot of  rain in mid-December turned the surface super-fast. Six-furlongs in 1:06 is a bit much.

Just don't forget speed is king at Santa Anita, as well as the Big A.

Speaking of the Big A, kudos to the New York-based Dominguez (his first) and Pletcher (his fifth) for their Eclipse Awards, and to the ageless Marylou Whitney for her lifetime-achievement Eclipse.

I can still remember the day some 15 years ago when they re-named the Saratoga press box for the late Joe Hirsch, and I raced downstairs to find and escort Mary Lou back up to the box for the ceremonies. After all, Mary Lou and Joe had been buddies for 50 years.

Well, it took a half-hour to make the five-minute walk since Mary Lou was stopped and hugged en route by  half of Saratoga. She finally made it with maybe a minute to spare. 

All the Eclipses were richly deserved, although The Toddster still owes us an explanation for the Life At Ten fiasco at the Breeders' Cup.

But life goes on for Pletcher. He won both New York stakes last weekend, and on Saturday he will run the coupled entry of Driven by Success and Calibrachoa in the 100K Toboggan at the Big A. The competition in the field of eight comes from trainer Rodriguez: Endless Circle and Temecula Creek.

Finally, our heartiest congratulations go to Zenyatta for getting Horse of the Year in a 128-102 vote over Blame. Of course, this should have been the third HOY for the Mare of a Lifetime.

And just think that: 1) if a mere 14 voters had gone the other way, Z would have been robbed of HOY a third straight year, and 2) the DRF staff voted for Blame, 38-21.

You would think that the good folks down at the Bible would have a clue.

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