Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Oaklawn Dodged a Bullet

There could be some debate about whether or not the connections of Rachel Alexandra must be considered the big losers of last Saturday. However, there can be no question about who the big winner of Monday was: Charlie Cella, the mastermind of Oaklawn Park.

And he is a mastermind indeed. During the decades of his ownership, the Arkansas track has fared remarkably well from both a sporting and a financial standpoint. It is a racino, but one of the few which are actually a racetrack with a casino, rather than the more common alternative of "a casino with lots of horses in the backyard".

Cella has never been afraid of going his own way, as when OP continually got snubbed by the AGSC. To their credit, the committee finally gets the relative strength of the Ark, Illinois and Ohio Derbies right this year, but Oaklawn still continues its policy not to mention the grades of their stakes races in their condition books or stakes schedule.

So it wasn't a huge surprise to see Charlie tackle the Rachel v Zenyatta question on everybody's mind head-on. Personally, I don't like Oaklawn's 5-million-Invitational proposal at all, but that's a topic for another post. More importantly, I'm sure that as of Saturday evening, nobody liked the proposal less than Charlie and the good folks at Oaklawn. After all, nothing in the revised conditions sheet demands that Rachel or Zenyatta turn up for the race with their respective winning streaks intact.

The fact is: after Rachel's hapless performance in an ungraded stakes race, the great duel that we've been waiting for has (at least temporarily) lost a lot of its appeal. What Oaklawn would end up with isn't worth half of the 5-million-tag.

Sure, it was a loss in a race off a long layoff, a race in which Rachel's camp employed a pretty overconfident race strategy. Sure, racing fans would still be excited about the matchup. What's more, I don't think it would necessarily be a foregone conclusion. But as for the mainstream appeal ... well, mainstream might not be the right word to describe ESPN News or Fox Sports Southwest.

The other fact is: Oaklawn has a wonderful storyline at the original purse, as long as Zenyata shows up. For 500.000$, Oaklawn is the place where Zenyatta can tie Citation and Cigar for 16 consecutive wins. (Even though the exact nature of the "record" is a bit cheesy; "modern day consecutive wins on major or mid-major racetracks", maybe? Oaklawn tries it with "consecutive unrestricted victories", but personally I'd say that "F&M" is quite a restriction. Regardless, it would be a great feat).
Tying Citation and Cigar should be enough to have the eyes and minds of racing fans focussed on Hot Springs on April 9. Rachel Alexandra would add another dimension, but basically the race would attract almost the same public attention with or without Rachel, the only difference being the 4.5 million more that Oaklawn would have to spend for the privilege.

As for the fans: we were robbed of the great duel that should have happened. But that was last November, not so much on Monday. Time will tell if there will be another chance to see a peak-form Rachel race against a peak-form Zenyatta. Time has told racing often enough that you shouldn't let such opportunities slip when they're there.


  1. A situation pretty well analyzed and dissected on your part.

    I still intend to be in Hot Springs on April 9, solely for my chance to see Zenyatta, even if the showdown is off and even if it weren't her crack at 16 in a row. (OK, and I have a family gathering four hours away that week, too.)

    But, it's too bad we won't see Rachel and Zen anytime soon.

  2. Glenn,

    don't get me wrong. From a sporting perspective I would love to see it too (and I don't think there is a good reason why it shouldn't happen right there, right then). I just would have loved to be able to read Cella's mind at the very moment when Rachel got edged out in New Orleans. Bet it rhymed with "buck".