The Oaklawn three-year old series is the most exciting program you’ll see anywhere in the sport of horse racing, and last year 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 recent horses such as: Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Curlin, Lookin At Lucky, Super Saver, Bodemeister, Will Take Charge, and Oxbow 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 18th, followed by the Southwest Stakes on February 15th, the Rebel Stakes on March 19th, and the one million dollar Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on April 16th. In the last eleven years Oaklawn Park has produced thirteen Triple Crown race winners! That’s a trend that we expect to continue in 2016.
The big question this year is who can fill the void left by American Pharoah? The answer…most likely nobody! However, that doesn’t mean some of these horses can’t go on to do big things, and there are several lining up to make the first steps towards doing just that. First we’ll start with the Jinks Fires trained Discreetness who recently won the Springboard Mile at Remington Park. He’ll make his first appearance in the Smarty Jones Stakes. Springboard Mile runner up Suddenbreakingnews, trained by Donnie K Von Hemel, is another that is targeting Oaklawn Park, but will most likely wait until the Southwest Stakes to make his 2016 debut. Suddenbreakingnews may not even be Von Hemel’s best three year old though, as Synchrony comes to Oaklawn Park on a two race win streak and is on target for the Smarty Jones Stakes as well. Finally, Chris Richard has a very nice colt in Unexplained that I’m very high on, however he has not been on the workout tab for three weeks now which is concerning. We’ll see what happens with this one. Those four look to be a formidable, and also have trainers who know a thing or two about winning at Oaklawn.
Just like always the D Wayne Lukas barn will have a say in things as well. The Zayat Stables owned Z Royal looks to be his top prospect, and will actually start the year out at Fair Grounds in the Lecomte Stakes. You have to think he’ll eventually run at Oaklawn though, and it’s very interesting that he’s lured in Victor Espinoza to ride right off the bat at the Fair Grounds. Z Royal is only a Churchill Downs maiden winner, but he was impressive in that race. However, Z Royal isn’t the only horse pointing towards Kentucky Derby prep races as another Churchill Downs maiden winner will be running in the Smarty Jones. That horse would be Gray Sky, who is a big gray son of Tapit. It took him a few races to pick up a win, but he has been competitive each time he’s ran. Terry Thompson most likely will have the mount on Gray Sky in the Smarty Jones Stakes.
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 Whitmore, a horse that was a flashy maiden winner at Churchill Downs before running poorly in the Delta Jackpot. He is trained by Ron Moquett who campaigned Far Right to victories in the Smarty Jones and Southwest Stakes last year. Knights Key is another horse that is somewhat under the radar after breaking his maiden nicely at Churchill Downs. He’s been working out steadily at Oaklawn since arriving. Others that have just broken the maiden and now look to take on stakes company include Black Ops and American Dubai. Both these horses have talent and could make an impact at some point. Finally, for a real crazy one how about Tapster. He has ran twice and finished sixth both times, but was up against some tough competition. He might be on the improve and could put together a couple of nice races this meet. His breeding is pretty salty!
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 it looks like he will be coming earlier than ever. Rumor has it Toews On Ice will be coming in for the Smarty Jones Stakes to kick off the meet. His barn is loaded with stars, and he’ll have to keep them all separate so Toews On Ice may not be he only one we see throughout 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. We know we can count on quality horses shipping in 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?