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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


As racing anticipates what will be the significant event of the 2020 Triple Crown season, featuring the NTRA’s third and fourth ranked three-year-olds, racetracks should not be tempted to use Oaklawn Park as the poster child for the resumption of racing in California, Kentucky and New York.

At least not until the track shows some urgency about Covid-19 health concerns for Oaklawn Park’s backstretch and community at large.

Many American sports fans, with nothing else to tune into late Saturday afternoon, will be shocked to see scenes from the confining saddling area where grooms, trainers, assistants and jockeys mill about waiting for horses to get tacked up paying ill regard to social distancing or the requirement to wear face masks.

If they have been paying attention, I didn’t see evidence of that on my TV screen this past Saturday or on other recent visits to the Oaklawn Park signal. Indeed, what is top level management there thinking?

The Arkansas Department of Health website advises that people “wear a face covering when out in public, especially when maintaining adequate social distancing is more challenging, such as at the grocery store.”

Or the saddling enclosure at the racetrack in Hot Springs.

“The State Board of Health is empowered to make all necessary and reasonable rules of a general nature for the protection of the public health and safety… for the suppression and prevention of infectious, contagious, and communicable diseases; for the proper enforcement of quarantine, isolation, and control of such diseases that may result in adverse health effects to the public.”

Further, it states that “the Department of Health is the state agency responsible for implementing the Board’s rules.”

I’m not sure who is dropping the ball on this, nor do I care to assess blame. I, too, live in a Red State, but the racetracks in my state get it.

Oaklawn Park is racing without fans, as are the four other Thoroughbred tracks in operation. Two of those are significant signals from Florida’s two racetracks, each of which has reported no positives. That might be the case at Oaklawn, too, and that would be welcome news.

But the optics, even for horse racing stakeholders and engaged fans and bettors who will be tuned into Oaklawn Park, are very disturbing and long-game counter-productive.

The general sports public, the audience that TVG talent is romancing the best it can in light of its newly formed association with NBC Sports, and racing’s critics, will be turned off by what they see, perhaps even outraged.

Admittedly, not all images emanating from Florida tracks have been pristine when it comes to wearing face masks but the majority does and social distancing is apparent. Additionally, the saddling areas at those tracks are open in either side so that air can be circulated from two directions.

At Oaklawn, one side of the saddling area is closed off by the doors that provide access and egress to pre-pandemic race fans.

“Protect your community. Protect yourself. Wear your face covering,” is the bottom line on the Arkansas Health Department website. Oaklawn needs to practice what their state health department preaches.

Arkansas Derby Split: Figuratively and Literally

Split into two divisions of 11 each and going as the 11th and 13th races, the Late Pick 4 makes a sandwich of the Grade 2 Oaklawn Park Handicap, the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on balance is the three-year-old event of 2020.

As expected, the Baffert horses have been installed as early line favorites. Charlatan, breaking from the rail in the two-turn mile and an eighth, was made the even money choice in division one. Nadal, like Charlatan, is undefeated and is the 5-2 early line favorite in division two.

Many regard the first division as the weaker of the two. We are taking a wait and see on that as the first division attracted three talented runners that didn’t fire their best shots last time out. And it’s not difficult to forgive those disappointing efforts.

Gouverneur Morris was a one-paced fourth in the G1 Florida Derby, his second start this season. The notion is that if divisional protem leader Tiz the Law were removed from the equation, the ‘Gouverneur’ only needed to find another length and a half to finish second.

We thought Todd Pletcher charge was a bit flat, understandable since the five-time Florida Derby-winning trainer didn’t employ a full court press to get him to the race but now the colt looks ready for best given the LAY-3 scenario. Johnny will pilot from post 4.

Although Anneau d’Or only has an impressive maiden victory on his resume, he was a fast-closing second in the BC Juvenile, his dirt debut, appeared to have Thousand Words measured but leveled out late, unable to wear down his rival, failing by a neck in the G2 Los Al Futurity.

Blaine Wright thought blinkers and Joel Rosario would make a difference in the G2 Louisiana Derby. Neither did the job and both are off here. Regular rider Juan Hernandez is back in the boot, he’s training well at his Golden Gate base so he rates to improve with blinkers removed, a 31% barn move.

Both of Basin’s route races this year have come on sloppy tracks. He had a rough trip and settled for third in G2 Rebel then was a even, dullish fourth in a B-stakes prep for this at Oaklawn April 11. The long range forecast for Saturday is partly sunny with no prediction of rain for the next four days.

Nadal (5-2) has more going for him than an undefeated slate. He retains Rosario, owns excellent speed, has passed an eyeball stretch battle, has five works since taking the Rebel, three of the bullet variety and, of greater significance, has been amenable to rating off his morning workmates.

Juvenile champion Storm the Court, as we all know, will need to raise his game, and he very well should in his third start of the year. Court Vision colt has trained very well in Arcadia, his first two starts looked like solid foundation makers, and he reunites with winning partner Flavien Prat.

The intrigue here is learning just how good Tampa Bay Derby wonder King Guillermo really is and, to a lesser degree, Wells Bayou who, after a win and and placing at Oaklawn, rebounded to win the Louisiana Derby by taking full advantage of a rare speed-favoring day in New Orleans.

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14 Responses

  1. JP–
    I agree 1000% with your observations about the Oaklawn paddock. Hoping all stay healthy despite the flagrant disregard for CDC recommendations re. COVID.
    And thanks for displaying the entrants for the 2 divisions of America’s only Derby this first Saturday in May. What a stellar racing program! Quite a send off to the 2020 Stakes Calendar until who knows when.
    And with Santa Anita still closed, I imagine PETA has applied for a small business loan……
    Chuck from Saratoga

  2. Points well made but the racing community is so insular, especially in a small town like Hot Springs, that these people are interacting with each other all day every day. So their carelessness, while inexcusable, is understandable.

    Suggesting they are some kind of role models for racing fans is stretching the point.

    Thankfully, the virus doesn’t come through the TV screen.

  3. TJ, it’s management’s role to instruct backstretch workers to follow Arkansas Board of Health strongly worded recommendation. I do not blame the workers, although anyone who doesn’t still wear a mask at this point shows little regard for their families, friends and public at large. Management fundamentally is shirking a civic responsibility in my view.

  4. Chuck,
    You are correct sir, just glanced at the other races on the card and there’s much work to be done an that. And I think Friday’s Fantasy is a beauty as well.
    OP sure going out on a high note. I know there’s no casino to prop up purses at the moment, but surprised they didn’t apply for some short extension.
    Shows you how badly simulcast monies are divided.
    If tracks are getting stimulus bucks they should put the money in the purse account so that race-trackers can continue working–providing all reasonable precautions are taken; face coverings and disposable gloves at minimum.
    Temperatures should be taken every morning when workers arrive at the barn.

  5. Oaklawn’s management should require mandatory face mask and social distancing especially in confined areas like paddock.

    1. Exactly, what’s so hard about that? Thanks Tony, it’s not a good look for people tuning in–in fact, it’s a turnoff.

  6. Mr. Pricci: In your prologue above you wrote a very succinct statement: ‘I, too, live in a Red State’. True today, but come November, if we are still alive, your acknowledgement will be incorrect in so far as you will not be living in a Blue State; you will be living in a Purple State! – my ‘best bet’ of the year.

  7. Not related:
    How does it feel to live in Florida?
    A state that won’t release Covid19 numbers.

    1. And a state threatened to open almost immediately? Not very well:

  8. Is there a clear message that is emanating from a third-tier racetrack in Nebraska? I read the message as being that horseplayers simply like to gamble and will seek out any racetrack, anywhere, that is operating regardless of the so-called ‘quality’ of the horseflesh; that a horse race is simply a horse race; that any and all horse races are worthy of a horseplayers attention, as they all required handicapping and all have a winner.

    Now, will the split-divisions of the Arkansas Derby be any different than, say, the feature race at lowly Fonner? In fact, won’t the Fonner race be easier to handicapping? How does a ‘capper pick a winner from the two Derby races, involving twenty-two horses, when most of those entered are virtually unknown and have not raced at the track before? Geez, have you read the conditions of the race? It cost an owner $15,500 to enter their blue blood, but all the horse has to do is stagger across the finish line dead last and the owner will get a check for $10,000. What’s your bet worth if your selection finishes last, seventh, or fourth?

    Yea I know, the pools will be larger at Oaklawn and the exotic bets will payoff far more. The problem is, ya gotta select the correct numbers first (who actually reads the past performances anymore, Alice? Who can afford to purchase them?)

    1. Yes, Wendell, it’s been clearly established: And I’ll bet a Fosters that my raindrop slides down to the window-sill faster than yours does!

  9. TTT

    It scares me that there are so many prominent horse people who have been taken in by the Covid Cash Cow; persons who believe everything they read, and that the Government tells them. Great to see people without masks in the Oaklawn Paddock, or any paddock. Who cares what the Arkansas State Government says, about anything. Take off those silly masks and gloves, get out of your house and get some sun, and go about your business. If you don’t, the dire consequences for your health, your financial well being, your families, your friends, your enemies, will be dwarfed by anything this run-of-the-mill virus could possibly cause. While reading this article, and the comments, all that kept coming to mind was the vocal sounds that emanate from sheep. Baaaaaa! Baaaaaa!

  10. Sans mask, cash in: On a sunny day, bring a pizza in for the nursing staff at an elder care facility near you …

  11. Yup! ‘run-of-the-mill-virus’. In the last forty-five minutes the death toll from the virus in the U.S. increased by 94 to 61,095.

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