Oaklawn Park's Racing Festival of the South

April 11, 2012 03:40am
The Racing Festival of the South was inaugurated in 1974 by Oaklawn Park and owner Charles Cella with a stakes race each day over the final seven programs of the meeting, climaxed by the Arkansas Derby. Following is a reverse chronological rundown of some of the most significant moments in Festival history.
2010 – In only her second start outside of California to this point in her career (both at Oaklawn), Zenyatta cruises to her 16th consecutive victory in the Apple Blossom Invitational at .05 - 1 odds followed by a victory lap after her gallop out as she struts for the delirious Oaklawn Park fans and railbirds.  Many fans on hand that day had paid egregious amounts of money on condo rentals and scalped box seats anticipating the Rachel – Zenyatta matchup, so the Big Z putting on this show erased many negatives of Rachel’s camp backing out of the race just one week prior. It is truly a moment that I will never forget in racing.
2009 – In a tune-up race to her record setting Kentucky Oaks performance, Rachel Alexandra is throttled down in the stretch by Calvin Borel to win the Fantasy Stakes by nearly nine lengths. Of course, she will go on to win the Kentucky Oaks by 20+ lengths and defeats the boys three times to capture her HOY award.
2005 – Afleet Alex bounced back from an atypical sixth place finish in the Rebel Stakes (where he was later found to have a lung infection) with a record eight length tour de force performance in the Arkansas Derby over Flower Alley.  He would prove his theatrics once more in the Preakness Stakes after nearly “bouncing” on his face when Scrappy T knocked him over in the Pimlico stretch to rebound and win by five lengths going away.  Probably one of the most underrated horses to run in the last 20 years.
2004 – Smarty Jones broke from the outside 11 post to pressure Purge before taking command in the Arkansas Derby en route to his sixth win in as many starts. He would later collect a $5 million bonus for sweeping the Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby.  The track and local fans alike rode the “Smarty Party” craze all through the spring classics and legend has it that Oaklawn Park actually ran out of cash on Kentucky Derby day there were so many local winning tickets.
2003 – Reigning Horse of the Year Azeri returned to Oaklawn for her second of three Apple Blossom victories but needed the entire stretch to run down pacesetter Take Charge Lady in one of the most thrilling races in track history.  If the latter mare’s name sounds familiar it should.  She is the dam of recent Florida Derby winner Take Charge Indy - that somehow only brought $80,000 as a yearling and is now poised to be the last chance for super-sire A.P. Indy to sire a Kentucky Derby winner.
1999 – In one of the most bizarre incidents in Oaklawn Park’s illustrious history, Valhol won the Arkansas Derby by four lengths at odds of 30-1 but was later disqualified and placed last of the seven horses entered after a random photograph illustrated something being dropped from jockey Billy Patin’s hand just past the finish line. Oaklawn officials later found an electronic “buzzer” device on the track that provided the proof needed to strip the owner’s share of purse winnings, ban Billy Patin, and declare Certain the race winner after legal wranglings that lasted nearly two years. In a painful twist of irony, I had a fairly large national pick three ticket working that day with Adonis in the Wood Memorial and Menifee in the Blue Grass Stakes to several horses in the Arkansas Derby, including Certain. Of course, once the race went official the bettors were made whole and me and plenty of others got the short end of that deal thanks to the cheater, Valhol.  (Why is it that as gamblers, we tend to dwell on the near misses more than our actual scores?!)
1999 – The reigning Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Reraise appeared to float over Oaklawn’s dirt surface in a dominant front-running performance that was just a few ticks off the track record for six furlongs that still stands today (Karen’s Tom 1990 Bachelor Stakes in 1:07.80).
1995 – In one of Mr. Paulson’s favorite memories of his big horse, Cigar powers away from Silver Goblin, Concern and Best Pal in the stretch after being struck in the face by the whip of Dale Cordova aboard Silver Goblin to win his sixth of 16 consecutive victories in the Oaklawn Handicap.
1993 – Calvin Borel pilots Rockamundo to upset 10 rivals in the Arkansas Derby and absolutely light up the tote board while paying a staggering $218 to win. It would be the biggest win payoff ever for an Oaklawn stakes race and the last of only two victories recorded in the horse’s career.
1992 – Pine Bluff defeats Lil E. Tee in the Arkansas Derby by a neck after matching strides throughout the stretch in one of the most anticipated showdowns in Oaklawn history. These two Arkansas based stars each go on to greater glory in the Triple Crown as Lil E. Tee takes the Kentucky Derby and Pine Bluff is victorious at Pimlico.
1992 – Best Pal wins his first appearance in the Oaklawn Handicap. The faithful gelding would win 18 of 47 starts for $5.6 million in career earnings.
1989 – Bayakoa powerfully wins the Apple Blossom Handicap to help launch her two-year reign as top older female horse for Ron McAnally and owners Sid and Jenny Craig.
1984 – Althea, the reigning 2-year-old filly champion, becomes the first filly to win the Arkansas Derby (and the first for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas).
1983 – Sunny's Halo becomes the first Arkansas Derby winner to be victorious on the first Saturday in May at Louisville. He had also won the Rebel Stakes that season in his seasonal debut, establishing the light prep model that is followed rigorously by today’s new wave of trainers.
1980 – Temperence Hill wins the Arkansas Derby and later becomes the eighth Eclipse Award winner to race at the Hot Springs track. More than 250,000 fans attended the Racing Festival of the South.
1976 – Elocutionist becomes the first Arkansas Derby winner to take a Triple Crown race with his victory in the Preakness Stakes.


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Older Comments about Oaklawn Park's Racing Festival of the South...

Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Eric. I would also add Curlin, Lawyer Ron, (consecutive years) Victory Gallop, Tank's Prospect, Davona Dale, Bold 'n Determined, and Festin as other memorable Festival winners. Festin beat a great field that day in 1991 ... I was there to root on Unbridled.
One o0f the many many reasons why this is one of the best managed race meetings each and every year...THese people KNOW how to sell the product

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Meet Eric Kords
Eric is a historian of thoroughbred racing at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas and across the country. He has witnessed in person nearly every significant race that has occurred at Oaklawn Park since the mid-1980’s including such recent Eclipse champions as Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, Lookin at Lucky, Summer Bird and Curlin, classic performers including Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones, Victory Gallop, Lil’ E Tee, Pine Bluff and Grindstone, top handicap champions Cigar, Lawyer Ron and Best Pal, and finally Distaff champions the likes of Azeri, Bayakoa, Paseana, Escena and Ginger Punch.  
Eric has also attended the most historically significant races across the country including the 2010 Breeders' Cup featuring Zenyatta’s epic finale, 2008 Breeders' Cup featuring Curlin’s final race, the Eclipse clinching victory by Rachel Alexandra against the boys in the 2009 Woodward Stakes at Saratoga, 2010 Preakness Stakes won by Eclipse champion Lookin at Lucky, 2004 Belmont Stakes where Smarty Jones was denied the Triple Crown by Birdstone, 1996 Pacific Classic at Del Mar where Cigar’s 16 consecutive win streak ended at the hooves of Dare and Go, Jim Dandy Stakes and Travers Stakes at Saratoga, Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park and Summit of Speed Festival at Calder just to name the most memorable.  Eric now resides in Dallas, TX and counts Oaklawn Park, The Fair Grounds and Lone Star Park as his “home tracks.” He has recently entered the thoroughbred owner ranks with the launch of his Saturday Racing Syndicate.

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