by | 11.17.2010 | 12:47am

By Ray Paulick

There are a lot of people sitting on pins and needles in Hot Springs, Ark., this afternoon, all waiting to see what happens at Santa Anita Park and Fair Grounds when two-time champion Zenyatta and Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra make their 2010 debuts in anticipation of their long-awaited match-up, scjheduled to take place  in the $5-million Apple Blossom Invitational at Oaklawn Park on April 9.

From the hotel and motel owners, bar and restaurant operators, the folks who sell their front lawns for parking spaces to souvenir stand concessionaires and Oaklawn Park owner Charles Cella, everyone has the same question: Will they both show up?

Consensus seems to be in the 50/50 to 60/40 range that the Battle of the Amazons will take place, though anyone who's been following Rachel Alexandra's camp carefully in recent days wouldn't be surprised to see Jess Jackson burst racing's bubble and say his filly won't come to Hot Springs.

Behind the scenes, there have been discussions for national television for the Apple Blossom, though the Paulick Report has learned that NBC Sports, which will have its camera and crew in place at Oaklawn Park for the April 10 Arkansas Derby, has passed on the opportunity.

If that's the case, the best opportunity for the Apple Blossom will be on ESPN, which is currently scheduled to show the second round of the Masters golf tournament from 4-7 p.m. (Eastern Daylight Time) If the published reports of the last couple of days are true and Tiger Woods makes his comeback in the Masters, and has an afternoon tee time for the second round, a 7-8p.m. Eastern time slot would have a terrific lead-in audience.


Sunset in Hot Springs will be around 8:35 p.m. (Eastern Time), and track officials are planning to put the Apple Blossom very late on the card. Thus, it's possible the race could go off at close to prime time in the East Coast and a reasonable time for a wide viewing audience in the Midwest. But many West Coast are more likely to be sitting in their car on a freeway at post time for the Apple Blossom.

A further indication of ESPN's interest in the Apple Blossom could come later today when they may cut in to SportsCenter to show Rachel Alexandra's and Zenyatta's comeback races. Let's all hope for a safe journey for both of racing's superstars.

Today's attendance at Oaklawn is probably in the vicinity of 25,000, and it's not easy to navigate through the crowd lined up for beers, food and wagering inside the gr7andstand (not to mention the long line for the ladies room). I can't imagine what this place will be like on April 9 if Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra are here.

5 p.m. … Oaklawn Park's general manager, Eric Jackson, stopped by the press box and updated the Paulick Report on plans for the Apple Blossom. It looks pretty the certain the race will be run at 7:45 p.m. (Eastern) as the 11th and final race on the program. Jackson said. That makes a one-hour ESPN spot all the more likely following hte Masters from Augusta. While some will complain that racing needed to be on a broadcast network, the 7-8 p.m. timeslot on the networks belongs to local affiliates who fill the hour with trash like “Access Hollywood,” “Entertainment Tonight” or with game shows like “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune.” 

Jackson talked bluntly about the economics of offering a $5-million purse for the big race. “God bless Charles Cella,”  Jackson said. “From a sporting standpoint, this is one of the greatest gestures in the history of the sport. From a business standpoint, as I said to the racing commission, it's the dumbest thing Oaklawn Park has ever done.

“We can't make a dime,” said Jackson, indicating the Friday of the “Racing Festival of the South” would have been a sellout with or without the two champions. “But that didn't enter into Charlie's thinking on this.”

Prices will remain the same as usual at Oaklawn Park on Apple Blossom (hot tip–the Reuben sandwich for $6.50 is a steal), though private parking lot operators said they will charge as much as $50 a spot (up from $20 on Rebel Stakes Day). The infield will be open, and for the first time Oaklawn will have hospitality and corporate sponsor tents there–even though they don't have any corporate sponsors yet. “We had a staff meeting when we first came up with this and someone said, 'You want us to do in seven weeks what most people have a year to do?'” Jackson said. “I told them, 'No, we actually have eight weeks now.'”

Handicapper Paul Skelton tried to convince Jackson the Apple Blossom day races will be stronger along with the following day's Arkansas Derby because horsemen shipping in will sent other horses to fit the card. Jackson thought about it for a second and said, “Okay, maybe now we'll only lose $4.7 million instead of five. That makes me feel a whole lot better.”

So it all comes down to what Bill Murray's character in “Caddyshack,” Carl Spackler, got the time he caddied for the Dalai Lama and got stiffed on his tip. “I say, 'Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know.' And he says, 'Oh, uh, there won't be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consiousness.' So I got that goin' for me, which is nice.

So will Charles Cella and Eric Jackson. Gunga galunga.

5:40 p.m. …  Well, if the Tampa Bay Derby is any indication of how this day is going to go, it could get a little strange. Odysseus, making his stakes debut after romping to a 15-length allowance/optional claiming win at Tampa Bay, surged to the lead right at the wire to edge Schoolyard Dreams by a nose in a weirdly contested race. Super Saver, the 3-2 favorite who set fractions of :23.52, :47.02, 1:11.74, and 1:37.42, was a close third for trainer Todd Pletcher.  Final time for the 1 1/16 miles was 1:44.37.

Rajiv Maragh had Odysseus in a perfect striking position throughout the Tampa Bay Derby but the Malibu Moon colt looked to be struggling at the top of the stretch, falling back to fourth or fifth position when Schoolyard Dreams moved to the lead. But as Schoolyard Dreams and Super Saver battled in the final sixteenth, Odysseus squeezed between them and had just enough to get up at the wire and win in a head-bobbing finish. Local hope Uptowncharlybrown had a rough trip from the rail, having to block and steady around the final turn before winding up fifth. Gleam of Hope was pinched back to last after the start but rallied into contention on the stretch turn before fading to fourth.

The winner races for Satish Sanan and family's Padua Stables and was the 2-1 second choice in the wagering. The $250,000 OBS March 2-year-old purchase, bred in Kentucky by Haymarket Farm and Lakemont Stable, is trained by Tom Albertrani.

Tampa Bay Derby chart.

6 p.m. … Saw Airdrie Stud owner and former Kentucky Gov. Brereton Jones  earlier in the card and didn't think much of it when he said he'd only been to Oaklawn Park three other times, and each  time he ended up winning a graded stakes race on the day. “Of course, I don't really know if we belong in this field,” Jones said about his filly No Such Word's chances in the Grade 3 Honeybee Stakes. All I could think about as the Canadian Frontier 3-year-old filly pulled away from favorite Beautician and the rest of the Honeybee Stakes was “Thanks, Gov!” The filly is trained by Cindy Jones, whose husband, retired trainer Larry Jones, is one of the most recognizable hotwalkers in all of racing.

6:16 p.m. … The fillies are walking toward the starting gate for the New Orleans Ladies and I notice that Rachel Alexandra has taken about $975,000 of the $1 million in wagers in the show pool.

6:20 p.m. … It got awfully quiet at Oaklawn Park when Zardana pulled up alongside Rachel Alexandra  and then went right on by in the stretch run of the Ladies to win by three-quarters of a length. Trainer Steve Asmussen has been telling anyone who would listen that he's concerned Rachel wasn't quite fit enough, and guess what? He was right. 

Zardana, coming off a fourth-place finish in the Santa Maria Handicap for John Shirreffs–YES, THAT JOHN SHIRREFFS, also the trainer of Zenyatta–is a Grade 2 winner of the Bayakoa Handicap at Hollywood Park who was ridden to perfection by David Flores. Zardana settled into third position  while Fighter Wing set fractions of :23.84, :47.22 and 1:12.86 for six furlongs.  Calvin Borel had Rachel Alexandra second early, racing wide around the first turn and then just off the leader down the backstretch while appearing a bit eager. She moved to the front before hitting the far turn, but was quickly under attack from Zardana, who had all the momentum entering the stretch. Rachel Alexandra fought back, feeling the sting of Borel's whip four times from the left hand four times from the right, but then the rider wrapped up on the filly when defeat was certain.

The winner, a Brazilian-bred daughter of Crimson Tide was winning for the eighth time in 19 starts. She is owned by Arnold Zetcher. Zardana paid $21 to win on a $2 mutuel. Unforgotten was a distant third, followed by Fighter Wing and Clear Sailing.

Here's the New Orleans Ladies Chart.

6:45 p.m. … Zenyatta did her job, winning the Santa Margarita with yet another dramatic stretch run. More in a few minutes, but let me just say that Mike Smith did one hell of a job negotiating through traffic at the top of the stretch, then swinging ooff the fence and winning comfortably without ever going to the whip.

6:52 p.m. … Champion Lookin At Lucky just got up to win the Rebel, defeating Noble's Promise by a nose, with Dublin third. That wasn't what I would call a comfortable win, and I'm not thinking Lookin At Lucky looks like a horse who has another three-sixteenths of a mile in him.

6:55 p.m. … Planning to escape the press box for a while and catch the post-Rebel press conference. Back in a little bit. Need to catch my breath. Too many exciting races in too short a time.

7:30 p.m. … Horses in the paddock for the day's final 3-year-old prep,. the San Felipe at Santa Anita.

7:35 p.m. … I asked one of Lookin At Lucky's co-owners, Mike Pegram (pictured, left), if he thought after today's narrow win in the Rebel if he thought the Smart Strike colt could get a mile and a quarter for the Kentucky Derby, and he had a quick response. “Mickey Mantle never knew he could hit a curveball till they threw him one. This horse is an athlete.”

Trainer Bob Baffert said jockey Robby Albarado aboard Noble's Promise put Looking At Lucky in a box near the half-mile pole and said jockey Garrett Gomez told him he got bounced around a little near that point of the race. Watching the head-on replay as the horses were pulling up when Gomez could be seen saying something to Albarado. “Look, he's telling him something,” Baffert said, “He's saying, 'You sonofabitch!'”

Dublin ran a solid third behind the top pair after moving toward the lead at the top of the stretch.

7:50 p.m. … Like taking candy from a baby. That's how easy the win by Sidney's Candy was in the San Felipe. Under jockey Joe Talamo, the John Sadler-trained colt cruised through soft fractions of :24.39 for the opening quarter mile, :48.55, 1:13.53 and 1:36.26 en route to a final clocking for the 1 1/16 miles of 1:42.30. Interactif chased early and late, finishing second, beaten about a length, with American Lion third after taking back off the early pace while wearing blinkers for the first time. Sidney's Candy was coming off an easy win in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes, so this was the Candy Ride colt's first try around two turns.Sadler's other entrant, Dave in Dixie, a stretchrunner, never fired.

8:00 p.m. … I am still in absolute awe of Zenyatta and the manner in which she won the Santa Margarita, spotting from 11 to 15 pounds to her rivals and coming off a four-month layoff. Today's win was “only” by 1 1/4 lengths, and the filly that finished second, a 51-1 shot named Dance to My Turn, is obviously not a world beater. But when Smith was caught in traffic at the top of the stretch more than a few people watching the telecast around me said 'She's gonna lose.' But just as in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Smith found room along the inside (he's not Five-Wide Mike any more), then guided her into the clear to make a breathtaking run to the lead in a matter of strides.

I don't want to get in the 2009 Horse of the Year debate, but those who continue to put Zenyatta down mystify me. What more could they possibly want her to do? 15-for-15 is pretty darned good.

Here's the Santa Margarita chart.

8:25 p.m. … Media relations director and race caller Terry Wallace stopped by for a chat and you could feel a great sense of disappoint about the Apple Blossom from him—not that the race or the day will be any less exciting for racing fans (with or without Rachel Alexandra, since Zenyatta is scheduled to come here either way). “If both fillies were to come here off a win, this would have really given the sport something it needed,”  Wallace said. “It will still be a big day, but this really took the starch out of the sails.” He agreed that it would be like a prize fighter losing his warm-up bout before a championship boxing match against an opponent he'd never faced. Racing people understand that prep races are meant to get horses ready for something bigger down the road, but the general sports fan or non-racing media person might not. The New Orleans Ladies should be viewed with the same significance as a spring training game for Major League Baseball or a pre-season game in the NFL.

The only problem with that philosophy is that Jess Jackson wants to win them all, and now that Rachel has lost carrying his silks I'm afraid he will back out of the Apple Blossom,. even though veteran horsemen I spoke with after the New Orleans Ladies thought it was an excellent prep race for Rachel Alexandra.

8:45 p.m. … Bouncing around yet again, I want to revisit the Rebel Stakes. Lookin At Lucky really had a rough trip, according to the Equibase footnotes: “Lookin At Lucky, bothered start, settled off the pace and on the inside, jumped across Noble's Promise heels when that one came out just outside the half-mile marker, quickly recovered, advanced four wide into contention turning for home, set down, late bid, gained the nod in a game effort.”

“There was a lot of race riding going on. They put him in a spot,” said Baffert, who said he got exactly what he wanted out of the Rebel, whether Lookin At Lucky had gotten up to win or not. “This was kind of a Kentucky Derby experience he got.” Baffert hasn't been to Oaklawn Park for over a decade, but said he really liked the dirt surface of the main track, saying it's as close to Churchill Downs in its composition as any track he's seen. He even told the track superintendent he'd like to take him back to California with him. (Of course, I have to wonder how many days Baffert would be here before he started complaining about the track surface, something he's known to do just about anywhere he's been stabled.)

He said “anything's possible” regarding the next start for Lookin At Lucky, though indicated the Wood Memorial or the Arkansas Derby would be the most likely spots. He compared Looklin at Lucky to the first of his three Kentucky Derby winners, Silver Charm. “You know he's gonna give you everything he's got,” Baffert said.  Speaking of Silver Charm, it was when he was considering what to do with Bob and Beverly Lewis'  horse after scratching out of the Santa Anita Handicap that he said, “We could either go the Oaklawn Park for the Oaklawn Handicap or Dubai for  the Dubai World Cup (which Silver Charm won), but it's a lot easier to get to Dubai.” The private jet owned by one of Lookin At Lucky's owners made Baffert's trip to Hot Springs a little easier this time around.

Here's the chart for the Rebel Stakes.

Here's the chart for the San Felipe.

9:20 p.m. … Oaklawn Park is becoming one of my favorite racetracks in the country. It's all about horse racing, and the management and staff seem to always put on a good show. Today's attendance turned out to be 36,298. Yes, a lot of them came in hopes of winning the pickup truck and boat/trailer given away, but find me another track that packs 'em in like this on the weekends. From Arkansas billionaires to farmers in bib overalls they love their horse racing here in Hot Springs and the whole region that Oaklawn Park draws from.

Come April 9, the day of hte Apple Blossom Invitational, this place will be jumping again, whether or not Rachel Alexandra shows up.If she is here, she'll be a lot fitter and better prepared filly than she was today in the New Orleans. And if she isn't here, racing fans will be treated to what I think is the greatest female Thoroughbred in my lifetime. It will be a day to remember…. no matter what.

That's it from Oaklawn Park.

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