Each year Sara Dacus and her friends take a trip to the Arkansas Derby.
The gods of racing weather had not smiled on Oaklawn Park for the first two legs of the Arkansas Triple Crown: ice forced the postponement of the Southwest Stakes, and rain caused a sloppy track for the Rebel Stakes. So on the day of the third leg, the Grade 1 $1-million Arkansas Derby, racing fans embraced the glorious spring day.
The Arkansas Derby is the last major prep race for the Kentucky Derby, offering the winner 100 points, second place 40 points, third place 20 points and fourth place 10 points. The Kentucky Derby dreams of several horses hinged on this race, including Madefromlucky, The Truth or Else, Bold Conquest and Far Right.
My accomplices for this weekend and I met early and took a few photos before we departed on our annual trip (we call ourselves the Sisterhood of the Derby). Most of us participated in our traditional champagne toast, and we were off to Hot Springs.
The turnout for the Arkansas Derby is strikingly impressive: the past six years, the event has drawn over 60,000 people and the past four years, the Arkansas Derby has attracted larger crowds than Breeders’ Cup Saturday. It is truly the place to be for people from central Arkansas and beyond. Estimated attendance for 2015 was 67,500.
The infield was open, so people formed a long line at the 1/16 pole to tunnel under the track and emerge in the springtime park within a park. The dogwoods, redbuds and green trees there provide a beautiful backdrop for racing and Oaklawn provided plenty of fun. A band performed in a pavilion. A mariachi band roamed the grounds. Rented tents hosted fancy parties. Groups relaxed on blankets. Guys played baggo. Kids bounced in jump houses. People enjoyed the signature corned beef sandwich. From the infield, I caught a glimpse of Oaklawn president Charles Cella, the third-generation of his family to be at the track’s helm, watching the action from the back porch of his house on the home stretch.
The undercard for this final day of the meet also included the Grade 2, $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap and two $100,000 stakes races. Race Day was the 6-5 favorite, but I enjoy rooting for Carve, whose owner Michael Langford grew up in Searcy, Ark., where I have always lived.
Race Day, ridden by John Velazquez, edged out Carve for the win. Race Day has emerged as a serious competitor, winning five out of his last eight starts. He is trained by Todd Pletcher and owned by Matthew Schera.
Wolf Man Rocket, ridden by Victor Espinoza, trained by Bob Baffert and owned by Frank Fletcher, broke his maiden in the $100,000 Northern Spur Stakes, his third start. He placed second in his previous two races, which were maiden special weight races at Santa Anita. Toby Keith was present and watched his gelding Hillbilly Royalty run second. Later in the evening, the Sisterhood saw him at The Back Porch Grill, a popular restaurant among people with racing connections.
Leading rider Ricardo Santana, Jr. had been hospitalized with flu-like symptoms and missed the final three days of the season. But despite losing these mounts, he won his third consecutive Oaklawn title with 53 wins with Ramon Vazquez finishing second with 51 wins. Santana was able to be present to receive his trophy, and his agent Ruben Munoz and Angel Cordero, Jr., a Hall of Fame jockey and mentor to Munoz, stood by his side.
RICARDO SANTANA JR., FELIX ORTIZ AND ANGEL CORDEO, JR
I enjoyed getting an up-close look of the trophy and gardenia blanket awaiting the Arkansas Derby winner. This southern flower has a gorgeous appearance and smell and has always been one of my favorites.
Race fans buzzed about American Pharoah all day long. He and Victor Espinoza romped impressively on the sloppy track in Oaklawn’s Rebel Stakes on March 14, and the crowd was ready to see them race on a fast track. American Pharoah’s support was evident at the post: he went off at 1-9. The colt is trained by Bob Baffert and owned by Zayat Stables. This duo won the 2012 Arkansas Derby with Bodemeister.
I am an ardent fan of Baffert and Zayat Stables, but I’m also loyal to our local contenders, which means I had a rooting interest in Far Right. He won Oaklawn’s Smarty Jones Stakes and Southwest Stakes and is trained by Ron Moquett and owned by Harry Rosenblum and Robert LaPenta.
When his moment came, American Pharoah ruled. He finished with an eight-length victory over Far Right, giving last year’s two-year-old champion his fourth straight victory in five career starts. Arkansas Governor Asa Huchinson presented the trophy to jockey Victor Espinoza and Baffert was represented by assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes. American Pharoah now ranks forth on the road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard behind International Star, Dortmund and Carpe Diem.
The second place finish solidified Far Right’s place in the Kentucky Derby. The Far Right team was in high spirits after the race as they spoke of their run for the roses. This will be trainer Ron Moquett’s first Kentucky Derby horse.
As the day wrapped up, I felt joyously melancholy. Oaklawn’s best day of racing is the last day of racing. However, I enjoy following Oaklawn champions during Triple Crown season and the prep races leading up to the Breeders’ Cup. After the Breeders’ Cup, Arkansas race fans will only have to wait two and a half months until opening day at Oaklawn on January 15, 2016.