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Basketball, racing see big changes

OPINION by Bob Wisener | March 28, 2023 at 4:03 a.m.
Interlock Empire wins a race March 11 at Oaklawn. Interlock Empire is entered in Saturday's Arkansas Derby. - Photo courtesy of Coady Photography

What if they held an NCAA Final Four that no one watched because no one knew any of the participating teams?

The tournament in progress, down to four teams after starting with 68 in mid-March, evokes such a thought.

Not only their brackets were shattered with a wave of Cinderellas, but it's conceivable that many fans lost interest along the way. Does it really matter to mainstream America which team -- Connecticut, Florida Atlantic, Miami or San Diego State -- cuts down the nets Monday night in Houston? With the final pairing to be revealed Saturday, March Madness officially ends in April.

That's almost as bizarre as holding the Arkansas Derby, a major prep race for a bigger race on the first Saturday in May, on April Fools' Day.

Someone asked the other day when's the Racing Festival of the South at Oaklawn. Charles J. Cella's concept of grouping the season's biggest races into one week has gone the way of the pick-six wager. With Oaklawn growing nationally, the track's late president brought up the idea one day with some observers, one of whom asked Cella, "Why not call it a festival?"

The Fantasy, which Cella envisioned correctly as a major Kentucky Oaks prep when Knitted Gloves won the inaugural race in 1973, carries on as a Grade 3 race for 3-year-old fillies but with its place on the schedule a recurring maze. Steve Cauthen, then riding better than any peer or perhaps of all time, rode in the Fantasy one year, spiking the crowd. With the late John Veitch training, Our Mims and Davona Dale restored Calumet Farm to prominence with Fantasy victories.

Oaklawn was prepared when jockey Bill Shoemaker, aboard Miss Musket, made the 1974 Fantasy his 100th victory in a $100,000 race. That one brought equally legendary Charlie Whittingham, the filly's trainer, to Oaklawn, the Bald Eagle then rarely leaving his California base. One last pairing of what one turfwriter called "the Old Man and the Shoe" resulted in a 1989 Fantasy victory for Jeanne Jones.

How, then, can a race with so much history be reduced to Grade 3 status? It is worth repeating that the Fantasy produced consecutive winners (Eight Belles, Rachel Alexandra) that finished second in the Kentucky Derby and won the Preakness. And that the 1984 Fantasy produced the next week's Arkansas Derby winner with Wayne Lukas wheeling back Althea after a troubled loss to My Darling One? Secret Oath achieved a similar reward when winning the Kentucky Oaks after running third in Cyberknife's Arkansas Derby. The forever young Wayne Lukas trained Althea and is poised for a big year with Secret Oath.

Remember when the Bachelor was on Monday, the Prima Donna on Tuesday, the Apple Blossom Handicap on Wednesday, the Count Fleet Sprint Handicap on Thursday and the Oaklawn Handicap on Friday before what in Kentucky they call Derby on the second Saturday of a racing week that began with the Fantasy?

Some of those races, the big ones, remain on the schedule; others have undergone more name changes than Elizabeth Taylor. The Oaklawn Handicap, which drew huge crowds for Alydar's surprise 1979 defeat and Zenyatta's 2010 coronation, now falls a couple of Saturdays past the Arkansas Derby. And the Oaklawn and Apple Blossom, once held on the same day, occur on separate April cards.

Pardon my repeating that certain Oaklawn races, at least their names, need a bit of strength. With the Oaklawn Handicap's historical importance, surely the Oaklawn Mile (one of four stakes Saturday) could be tweaked to help it build acclaim and prevent unnecessary confusion. The December stakes, added last year with a holiday theme, may catch on yet, although I still can't tell the Mistletoe and Tinsel apart along with one or two others. Oaklawn's April and May dates contain new stakes, many recognizing local and state tourism, which is good.

Then again, if Charles J. Cella could adapt to changes in the sport he treasured, hope might exist for graybeards in the crowd like myself. That said, I still miss the Old Rosebud and Northern Spur stakes, the latter honoring Cella's only Eclipse Award-winning horse.

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