The Oaklawn three-year old series is the most exciting program you’ll see anywhere in the sport of horse racing, and two years ago it changed the course of history! It had been 37 since the last Triple Crown winner, but that all changed as American Pharoah came to town and dominated the Arkansas Derby and Rebel Stakes before becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner in racing history. The three year old series is what the track is known for, and its also what has made it become as popular as it is today. Other than American Pharoah who certainly stands out above them all, there have also been horses such as: Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Curlin, Lookin At Lucky, Super Saver, Bodemeister, Will Take Charge, Oxbow, and Creator who have used Oaklawn as a spring-board to Triple Crown success. This year Oaklawn will have four races that count towards the “Kentucky Derby Points” system that determines who makes the starting gate on the first Saturday of May. The first race will be the Smarty Jones on January 16th, followed by the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes on February 20th, the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes on March 18th, and the one million dollar Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on April 15th. In the last twelve years Oaklawn Park has produced fourteen Triple Crown race winners! That’s a trend that we expect to continue in 2017.
The big question this year is who can fill the void left behind by so many of the great champions of the past at this track? First we’ll start with the Ron Moquett trained Petrov who recently finished second in the King’s Swan Stakes at Aqueduct. He’ll make his first appearance in the Smarty Jones Stakes, and might be the most exciting local prospect as of right now. The next two horses both come out of the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs. The third place finisher in that race, Warrior’s Club, is trained by D Wayne Lukas and was a winner of a 300k stakes at Churchill Downs before his most recent effort. The fourth place finisher Uncontested was making just his second start in the tough Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, but still ran well to finish fourth while getting an education. Uncontested is trained by Wayne Catalano. Finally, Donnie K Von Hemel has a nice colt in Rowdy’s Warrior that could turn into something decent as he finished fourth in the Springboard Mile last time out. Just like Petrov, these three colts are also pointed towards the Smarty Jones Stakes on opening weekend. Those four look to be a formidable, and also have trainers who know a thing or two about winning at Oaklawn.
With Oaklawn Park though things usually start with the high powered barn Steve Asmussen, and this year will be more of the same. Asmussen has an extremely deep roster of 3 year olds and really up to this point it’s hard to tell which ones are the best. The most established horse of his crop is Lookin At Lee who was the fourth place finisher in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile which was a very fast race. As good as Lookin At Lee has been, Asmussen might have better prospects waiting their turn in the barn. Those prospects include Springboard Mile second place finisher Totality, regally bred Untrapped, Saratoga maiden winner Reckling, and China Horse Club owned Equator. Asmussen also picked up a new client in Willis Horton who has split with D Wayne Lukas after a good run of success in past years. Horton has given Asmussen four prospects that will even further strengthen his power stable.
As always its that time of year to find a sleeper horse to watch for, and this year I have five in mind as we start the season. I’ll begin with a horse who has a resume not to be ignored, but is being forgotten about because of injury. That horse is Royal Copy who was a runner up finisher in the Grader 1 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga this summer. He hasn’t raced since then, but is scheduled to return to training soon so we could see him later on in the meet. The next two runners both come from the Ron Moquett barn. First I’ll mention Keeneland maiden special weight winner Rockshaw, who last time out finished fourth in a stakes at Laurel. Next, is Dupree who is still a maiden but has ran against some big time competition in each of his three starts this year. Both of these horses could develop and make an impact. Another local trainer with a nice horse this year is Chris Richard who trains Underpressure. The colt is two for two so far in his young career, but hasn’t faced the tough competition like some of the other have that will be running in these early stakes races. Finally…how about a colt who hasn’t even started a race yet!? That horse is the Kelly Von Hemel trained C Dub who is working up a storm in preparation for his first ever race early on in the meet. It’s always nice to see our friend Kelly get a nice horse, and this one could be very good. As always there will be a long list of up and comers that could make an impact that we haven’t even heard of yet, just like Creator did last year.
Of course the shippers will always be a huge factor when it comes to these four big races at Oaklawn. Bob Baffert has been absolutely dominate here in the past, and this year will most likely be no different as his stable is ultra deep with 3 year olds. Mastery and American Anthem are the two headliners as of now, but he has plenty more waiting int he wings. Thats no surprise though because his barn is always loaded with stars, and as always he’ll have to keep them all separate so we’ll see more than a few at Oaklawn Park later in the year. Baffert’s presence at Oaklawn boosts what is already a well respected series of races to a whole new level. In recent years Todd Pletcher has sent horses our way as well, and we know he has several nice horses that could fit into this series or races. Up and coming Tapwrit is nominated for the Smarty Jones Stakes, and Pletcher has commented that he would be a horse that could likely be shipped away from his home base of Gulfstream Park. We know we can count on quality horses shipping in from all around the country with the enticing purses and Kentucky Derby points available.
The time has come for Oaklawn to produce its next big star, and you can bet it’s loyal fan base is ready for it to happen. One of the truly unique things about Oaklawn is its rabid fans, and the pride it takes in its star horses. The fans here have been very lucky to see some of the all time great horses, but it’s time for a new one to emerge. The mystery of who the next “big horse” will be is what makes this time of year special. We may not see another American Pharoah, but we are all ready to check out the new crop of horses. It’s time to sit back and enjoy the ride…and also pick a winner or two! Who will become the next Oaklawn legend?