When I first explained my 39 ½ to my friend Lindsey and asked her to save the date, she replied, “A soft opening for your 40th! Gives you time to try it on, see if it fits and leave it on the dressing room floor if it doesn’t.”
Obviously, I could only leave it on the dressing room floor for six months. And celebrating early was a necessity if we wanted to commemorate the occasion at Oaklawn Park since the season runs January through April, and my new decade begins in August.
At my suggestion, my husband made arrangements through the track’s group sales department for the fifth race on Feb. 18 to be named “Sara’s 39.5 Classic.” However, I am the kind of person who plans much of her own birthday, so I took over a lot of the other details.
These Lemon Tree Paperie Starting Gate invitations were the clear winner. I made my first foray into vintage postage and purchased stamps featuring Secretariat, horse racing and the Arkansas and Kentucky from the 2002 states collection with the vintage postcard look (the Arkansas stamp features Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs, and the Kentucky stamp highlights race horses).
A former colleague of mine does lettering as an artistic hobby and side business. She addressed these beauties. I was pleased when Sarah told me the invitations set the tone for the weekend.
After the invitations went out, the normal conversations concerning apparel, accommodations and dining ensued, and then the day finally arrived. It included all of the components of a great race day: a champagne toast, handicapping with friends, the corned beef sandwich and many of the elements I’ve written about before. But the day had an extra sparkle because almost every single person we invited accepted the invitation. And they were having a fantastic time. Many of them were surprised we were going on track for the 39.5 classic.
Jamal and Lou, our hosts from guest services, were absolutely charming. My race was stacked with some of my favorite Oaklawn faces, so I felt good about the outcome of our winner’s circle experience. And I was pleased to be there with Declan Cannon, a jockey I visited with at length at the Oaklawn kickoff banquet. He remembered me and wished me a happy birthday.
The day continued. My husband, Casey, made a trip to the IRS window. We witnessed Terra Promessa blow away the field in the Bayakoa Stakes. Oaklawn Park was absolutely buzzing, so I was not surprised to learn that the track had season-high attendance. I like feeling we were a part of that.
After our day at Oaklawn, we had reservations at Deluca’s Pizzeria Napoletana. Again, a fabulous place I’ve written about before.
Proprietor Anthony Valinoti is a man who works hard, plays hard and seems to genuinely love everyone he meets. In his three years in business, his restaurant has joined the Arkansas elite.
The Thursday before the 39.5 Classic, the CBS affiliate in Little Rock broadcasted part of their morning show from DeLuca’s. On the day of the 39 ½, he sold out in record time, closing to all except reservation holders by 1:30 p.m. I was thrilled that many first-timers to DeLuca’s in my party fell in love.
I’ve had some pretty dang good days at Oaklawn and in Hot Springs. I’ve stood five feet from American Pharoah. I’ve walked in to The Backporch Grill the same time as country music star Toby Keith. I’ve seen George Wendt — Norm from Cheers — lead a pub crawl through town. I’ve had a run of incredible season closing days with “The Sisterhood of the Arkansas Derby.” But as I returned from the powder room and saw 25 friends in a strange mishmash conglomeration of tables, friends who have been with me through highs and lows who were willing to haul themselves to Hot Springs to celebrate with me, and a husband who wanted to give me the perfect celebration, I knew this was the best day of them all.