Derby Season Starts at Oaklawn
By Ciara Bowen
The 2016 live racing season at Oaklawn Park begins in less than a week and it’s hard to miss the excitement of people around Arkansas. Despite the fact that the early part of the meet occurs in the coldest part of the year, the track never fails to draw a crowd. Between their opening weekend traditions and the high quality racing, it’s easy to see why.
As an Arkansas native, I may be partial to the Natural State’s only racetrack, but that in no way discredits my love for it. I’ve been going to the races there since I was in fourth grade – I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon – and I find something else that I love about the track every year. There is typically a standout horse that I look forward to throughout the meet. Last year it was Far Right, and then American Pharoah. This year? It’s harder to tell.
The January 18 Smarty Jones Stakes will bring Arkansas the year’s first taste of the crop of three-year-old colts, including Synchrony, a promising son of Tapit. Trained by Donnie K. Von Hemel, the chestnut colt recorded his fourth work on the oval since December 17 on Friday, going five furlongs in 1:00.40. The Smarty Jones, at just a mile, is the shortest of Oaklawn’s series of Kentucky Derby preps. It will be Synchrony’s first start going two turns, and his stakes debut. He has won two of his three races to date. His dam, Brownie Points, was also trained by Von Hemel and won 9 of 27 career starts. Brownie Points won the 2006 running of the Martha Washington Stakes and two years later ran second to Zenyatta in the Apple Blossom Handicap (Gr.1). If her son shares her taste for the track, he will definitely be one to watch on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Also under consideration for the Smarty Jones is the Ron Moquett-trained gelding Whitmore, whose sire, Pleasantly Perfect, won the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Dubai World Cup. The gelding worked a half-mile Friday in :48.40, but the prospect of a large field has Moquett on the fence about whether to run in the stakes or in an entry-level allowance sprint on Saturday.
Whitmore broke his maiden first time out at Churchill Downs on November 6, taking the field by a solid 7 ¼ lengths. He followed that performance with a fifth place finish in the Delta Jackpot Stakes (Gr.3) a few weeks later at Delta Downs. It was both his first time around two turns and his first time running in stakes company. Should Whitmore run, he should not be overlooked. Moquett knows how to place his horses well, and he did win last year’s running of the Smarty Jones with Far Right. Regardless of which race he chooses, Whitmore looks to join the field for the Southwest Stakes (Gr.3) on February 15.
Toews On Ice, named for the hockey player, is also nominated for the race.
Rain or shine, opening weekend will play host to some talented horses and enthusiastic people at Arkansas’s favorite place to be.