Rex Nelson: Weather Clear. Track Fast.


Oaklawn Park Will Take Charge

Rex Nelson Archive PageOn my bookshelf here at work is a short novel by the late F. “Spider” Webb titled “Pool Halls, Parlors and Pawn Shops.”

The book was published in 2005, and its back cover describes it as the story of “three Southern men – one black, two white – who search for fast horses and good times at racetracks in Arkansas, Kentucky and Louisiana. Tagged as throwbacks, they function just outside the societal dictums of present-day America. They’re longtime friends who go their individual ways then, at times, come together for the searches of ‘steamers’ and mystery horses. The action takes place in Hot Springs, Louisville, the French Quarter of New Orleans and Cajun country. In the mix are racetrack denizens, Cajuns and French Quarter characters.

In other words, some of my favorite types of folks.

“Spider” was the father of one of my best friends, Kane Webb, the talented writer who now lives in Kentucky and edits Louisville magazine. I try to get as many of my books as possible autographed. I had Kane take the book to his father several years ago.

This is how it was signed: “Weather clear. Track fast.”

They are four of the most beautiful words that anyone who loves thoroughbred racing can hear.

The weather was clear and the track was fast Monday at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs.

Rarely, if ever, had Oaklawn patrons experienced a nicer afternoon in January as far as the weather was concerned. Tanzanite Cat won the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes for 3-year-olds. Tanzanite Cat went off at 9-1 in the 10-horse field and turned in a time of 1:38.69 on a fast track in the mile stakes. The winner returned $20.20, $8.40 and $5.60.

So we’re officially on the road to Louisville and the first Saturday in May, a road on which Oaklawn has become a major stop. Other key races for 3-year-olds at Oaklawn will be the Southwest Stakes on Feb. 17, the Rebel on March 15 and the Arkansas Derby on April 12.

You remember last year, don’t you?

Will Take Charge won the Smarty Jones Stakes in January. The horse fell to sixth in the Southwest Stakes before coming back on March 16 to edge stablemate Oxbow in the Rebel. Will Take Charge was not impressive in the Triple Crown races, finishing eighth in the 19-horse Kentucky Derby field, seventh in the nine-horse Preakness field and 10th in the 14-horse Belmont field.

The summer and fall represented a far different story. Will Take Charge won the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, won the Pennsylvania Derby and then fell just a nose short of Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

On Saturday night during the Eclipse Award ceremonies at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla., Will Take Charge received the Eclipse Award as the best 3-year-old male of 2013.

Jay Privman wrote in the Daily Racing Form: “Will Take Charge was good in the spring, and very, very good in the fall, putting bookends on an ambitious 2013 campaign. … Will Take Charge was proof positive that while there is life before the Triple Crown, there’s still plenty of life afterward, especially for a big, hearty, robust colt who got better as the year progressed, indeed thrived with more activity.

“Had it not been for a heartbreaking defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, his first start against older horses, Will Take Charge would have finished the year with four consecutive stakes wins, three in Grade 1 races. As it was, he won five races during the year, four graded stakes and two Grade 1 races, including the prestigious Travers Stakes. He ended the season with a victory over multiple Grade 1 winning older horse Game on Dude in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs.”

Willis Horton of Marshall owned the horse during its amazing 2013 campaign. He sold a 50 percent interest last month to Three Chimneys Farm.

Having a thoroughbred who spent the winter and early spring at Hot Springs win the Eclipse Award for best 3-year-old provides yet another boost for Oaklawn’s growing reputation as a place to start 3-year-olds on the way to greatness.

Still another boost came Saturday night when Will Take Charge’s trainer, the legendary D. Wayne Lukas, won the Eclipse Award of Merit, the sport’s lifetime achievement award.

Lukas-trained horses have won more than $250 million in purse money through the years. He has saddled almost 5,000 winners, and no trainer has won more than the 14 Triple Crown races that Lukas has captured. His 19 Breeders’ Cup victories are as many as any other two trainers combined.

Trainer Todd Pletcher, a Lukas protégé, said: “Wayne set the bar for so many of us, and I am grateful to have been a part of his team. His tutelage is responsible for the successes many of my colleagues and I share today. The fact that he is still winning classics more than three decades since his first classic win and still wakes up at the crack of dawn with such a passion for the game speaks volumes.”

What does it say that Lukas, like Will Take Charge, spends his winters and early springs at Oaklawn?

He’s 78 years old and still up before dawn, as Pletcher noted. And he’s watching the winter sunrises here in Arkansas.

Oxbow came from Oaklawn last year and provided Lukas with his 14th Triple Crown victory in the Preakness, breaking the tie Lukas had held with “Sunny” Jim Fitzsimmons. Lukas, who coached high school basketball in Wisconsin before he began training quarter horses in the late 1960s, switched to training thoroughbreds in 1978. His first Triple Crown victory came just two years later with Codex in the Preakness.

Lukas would be the first to tell you that there’s magic at the old track in Hot Springs.

As a young sportswriter in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was no place I’d rather be. You see, it’s easy to find stories at the track.

There are the horses with their quirks and pedigrees.

There are the jockeys, each of whom has an interesting story.

There are the trainers, some colorful with their quotes and others quiet.

There are the owners, often representing the cream of American business and industry.

I even wrote about the people who cooked in the track kitchen, shined shoes in the grandstand, operated the elevators and shucked the oysters.

There are so many stories at so many levels if you just know where to look.

Arkansas doesn’t have an NFL team, an NBA team, an NHL team or a Major League Baseball team. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Racing is the only professional sport where we’re in the big leagues as a state.

Two nights before the current Oaklawn meet opened, Lukas spoke to a crowd of several hundred people at a dinner in North Little Rock. He talked about the magic.

He talked about how Johnny Longden’s father saved enough money for a wife and young son to leave England and join the elder Longden in Canada. The train was late getting the mother and her son to the port city of Southampton. They missed their scheduled voyage. They had tickets on the Titanic.

Longden won the Triple Crown in 1943 aboard Count Fleet. In 1956, he became the winningest rider in thoroughbred history, breaking the record of 4,870 wins that had been set by British jockey Sir Gordon Richards. Longden was the nation’s leading jockey in races won in 1938, 1947 and 1948. After he retired from riding thoroughbreds, he became a trainer. When Majestic Prince won the 1969 Kentucky Derby, Longden became the first person to have won the Derby as both a jockey and a trainer. That boy who missed the Titanic lived to be 96. He died on his birthday on Valentine’s Day 2003.

Lukas also talked at the North Little Rock banquet about the boy born in August 1931 in the Texas town of Fabens, which is near El Paso. That boy weighed just 2.5 pounds at birth and was so small that he wasn’t expected to live until the next day. They put him in a shoebox in the oven to keep him warm. The boy was Willie “The Shoe” Shoemaker, who won 8,833 races in his career as a jockey. Shoemaker won 11 Triple Crown races. His Kentucky Derby winners were Swaps in 1955, Tomy Lee in 1959, Lucky Debonair in 1965 and Ferdinand in 1986.

Like I said, there are a million stories.

The boy who missed the Titanic and then lived to age 96.

The baby in the oven.

The many stories still waiting to be written.

It’s racing season in Hot Springs, a scene never duplicated anywhere else in our state.

Let’s let “Spider” Webb describe the start of another meet with this excerpt from his book:

“From the previous tracks they had come, riding in Cadillacs and Chevys and Fords, in dusty station wagons, in technicolor vans, in pickups carrying cowgirls and pulling two-horse trailers, in campers stuffed with kids who would enroll at the local schools, continuing educations that may span Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Florida and New Jersey before their racing year would be formally over.

“The downtown streets and rooming houses welcomed ex-jocks with excess weight and limps and a longing for what might have been; the apprentice riders fresh from the Western bush tracks or Cajun kamikaze quarter horse meets, confident that if they could get a leg up at a track the caliber of Oaklawn, the Shoemaker life would not be far off; the grooms, black, white, young, old, male, though increasingly female. But for their ceaseless care, the costly, skinny, fragile legs would always run in pain; the touts and tipsheeters, sporting new hats and rundown heels, who’ll sell you a gut double for a dollar or two and who are as slick as the Shadow in their disappearing acts.

“It is fair to say that the majority of casual racegoers have no conception of the subculture which exists within the racetrack and of the varied colorful and sometimes outlandish characters who make up the subculture. Inside the track I knew I’d find the regulars, a few of the more familiar ones showing the blue moons now, but ever hopeful, staking a claim to lucky benches, steps, tables, never varying seasonal routines; the perennial cranks readying battle stations from which to spew their timeless accusations at jockeys.”

It’s quite a place, this Oaklawn Park.

Weather clear. Track fast.

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