One Sport Story
ONE SPORTS STORY
by John Piesen
As far as the friendy folks down here in southwestern Arkansas are concerned, there is only one big sports story. Well maybe two. Arkansas rallied to beat Kentucky, 17-16, before a packed house in SEC baseball at upstate Fayetteville on Easter Sunday.
That was a biggie, but nothing compared to the arrival of Zenyatta for Friday's running of the $500,000 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park, down the street from the three local Wal-marts in Hot Springs.
As this is being written on Tuesday morning, hundreds of folks are looking up at the gray skies on a cloudy Arkansas morning, and scores of TV crews are standing by at Hot Springs Airport on Albert Pike Road, awaiting the arrival of Zenyatta from southern California on a Tex Sutton aircraft.
Zenyatta, who won the '08 Apple Blossom in the only prior non-California race of her pristine career, will be five cents to the dollar Friday against at best four undistinguished rivals.
One of those rivals will be a filly named Be Fair from the barn of living legend D. Wayne Lukas, and her rider will be Calvin Borel.
Ah, that's the pity.
Borel, the most popular fella in this resort down of 35,000 since what's his name...that fun-loving, two-term American president who was raised in a small stucco house two blocks east of the track.
In a perfect world, Borel would be riding reigning Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra in the Apple Blossom. The purse would be $5 million, not $500,000, and it would have been the biggest racing event since Seabiscuit-War Admiral in the late '30s.
But you all know the story. Rachel was undertrained for her prep race down the road a month back in New Orleans. Alas, she got beat a neck at 1-20 by Zardana, a third-tier stablemate of Zenyatta's, and a day later Jess Jackson announed to the world that Rachel would pass thank you very much on the Apple Blossom.
Instead, Rachel last week was loaded on a van to Churchill Downs, her next start very much in doubt.
As I learned over the weekend, the defection of Rachel Alexandra cost the citizens of Hot Springs an estimated $25 million.
Before Rachel dropped out, the closest rooms available were in Little Rock, an hour away...
As I cruised Central Avenue on Monday evening, I heard a commercial informing that the local Comfort Inn, one of the more popular joints in town, had plenty of rooms available for the weekend at reasonable prices.
Yes, Zenyatta will be a draw...as will her rider, Mike Smith, who will be my guest Friday morning at my hour-seminar at a redneck tavern across the track from Central Avenue.
But thanks to Jess Jackson, who is universally regarded here as the primary villain in the case, there will be no Race of the Century here late Friday afternoon, and, although the crowd will be substantial, it will be a long way from the 100,000 who would have made the scene if Rachel had made the scene.
Hal Wiggins, Rachel's original trainer and now a part-time bloodstock agent based in Houston, Tex., was hanging at Oaklawn Park last Saturday.
Hal has been a friend for years, but this was the first time since he lost Rachel last May that I got the chance to talk to him.
"I'm a happy man," Wiggins told me. "I'm happy that the filly is doing so well, and I'm happy that Mr. Jackson was good to me and my family."
"Is that all?", I asked him.
"Well, John, I'll tell you," he said.
"I wanted to run Rachel in the (Kentucky) Derby, and I came this close to putting up the ($6,000) late payment to run her. My owner, a good friend for 30 years, gave the Derby some thought, but finally decided to go to the Oaks.
"There's no doubt in my mind Rachel would have won the Derby. Calvin would have ridden her, and there was no other rider in the world who would have done what Calvin done that day on Mine That Bird."
Instead, Rachel ran in the Oaks, and won by 20 lengths, beating, among others, Be Fair.
Four days later, on a bright Kentucky morning, a moving van arrived at Wiggins' Churchill barn. The movers showed Wiggins a piece of paper, and loaded Rachel on the van for the 100-yard drive to Steve Asmussen's barn.
"I had no idea...," he said.
And the rest is history.
Fast forward to mid-January, and when Jackson and Asmussen received the trophy for 2009 Horse of the Year at the Eclipse Awards ceremonies dinner in Beverly Hills, neither made mention of Hal Wiggins.
"That's alright," Wiggins told. "That's the business."
"You don't really mean that," I replied.
He just smiled...
Changing gears, the John Piesen Hot Line (888 612 2283) and the Season of Piesen enjoyed yet another productive Saturday.
The JPHL made three selections in seven major stakes that day, a total of 21 selections. Nineteen of the 21 finished in the first three slots -- all but Sydney's Candy, whom I left out in the Santa Anita Derby, and Dakota Phone whom I had the poor judgment to put on top in the Oaklawn Handicap. After all California horses won every other big stake last weekend. Why couldn't Dakota Phone?
I settled for two-thirds of the Santa Anita Derby by including the odds-on Lookin at Lucky and the 18-1 Setsuko; nailed the $20 cold trifecta at the Wood Memorial; and hit exacta and trifecta boxes in the Illinois Derby, Bay Shore, Excelsior, Carter, and the Oaklawn Handicap, where my third choice, Duke of Mischief, aired at $14.20.
No doubt that Eskendereya, by virtue of his blowout victories over Jackson Bend in the Fountain of Youth and the Wood, will go to Louisville as the clear-cut favorite for the Derby, But his trainer, Todd Pletcher, still has the capablitity of runing seven or eight in the Derby, up to and including Super Saver, who will be one of the favorites Saturday with Borel up in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn.
The first two choices in the Arkansas Derby, which in recent years has been the key Triple Crown prep, will be Noble's Promise (Robby Albarado), and Dublin (Terry Thompson).
Thompson, who has wrapped up his second straight Oaklawn title, regains the mount on Dublin from Corey Nakatani, who has moved on to Keeneland with a new agent, Bob Friese, who repped Jerry Bailey in the Hall of Famer's salad years.
Eskendereya was sufficiently impressive in the Wood to climb to the top spot in each and every Derby Top Ten, and I'm no exception.
But there's one caveat. If Noble's Promise blows away the Arkansas Derby, I just might move him back to the top spot.
This is all quite significant because, if you'll recall, back in '08, eight days before they ran the Derby, my top three were: 1) Big Brown; 2) Eight Belles, and 3) Denis of Cork. That's how they would finish, producing a $3,200-plus cold trifecta.
That said, here's my current Top Ten:
|1. Eskendereya||Pletcher||Florida||Big Brown or big bust!|
|2. Noble's Promise||McPeek||Arkansas||The Ark. Derby favorite.|
|3. Sydney's Candy||Sadler||California||A wire-to-wire threat|
|4. Lookin at Lucky||Baffert||California||Due for better trip.|
|5. Dublin||Lukas||Arkansas||Working lights-out at OP.|
|6. Mission Impazible||Lukas||Florida||He's not impossible.|
|7. Make Music For Me||Barba||Kentucky||The new No. 1 in barn|
|8. Super Saver||Pletcher||Kentucky||Borel One to catch Saturday.|
|9. Ice Box||Zito||Florida||Will be well-rested.|
|10. Odysseus||Albertrani||Florida||Has a puncher's chance|
Thanks for tuning in. Check out the JPHL and Season of Piesen, and see you back here Friday for a detailed look at the Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass Stakes.
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