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Thoroughbreds

Thoroughbred Friday: Garrity picks the opening day horse races at Oaklawn Park

Chris Garrity

We get a hint of spring today: it's opening day at Oaklawn Park. The venerable and classic track in Hot Springs, Arkansas has slowly and somewhat quietly over the past few decades become a major player in the racing world in the late winter and early spring, hosting perhaps the most important Kentucky Derby preps in the country. This is a change from decades past, when Oaklawn was a meet of regional, rather than national, importance. There's a lesson, we think, that the rest of the sport can take from Oaklawn's success: a smaller number of high-quality races, nearly all featuring big, competitive fields, will draw far more attention, and more wagering dollars, than a larger number of lousy races. Oaklawn is perhaps unique in American racing in resisting the urge to expand the racing calendar: they race only from late January to early May, and only three or four days a week, That makes each card an event, and today's is no exception: for a Friday in the dregs of winter, it's a very good one.

The weather is supposed to be just fine in Hot Springs today: a bit chilly, but dry. We are expecting fast dirt (Oaklawn, in another example of how it's a throwback track, has no turf course). Let's go.

Oaklawn Park, Race 4, 2:58 pm ET

Maiden Special Weight, 1 1/16 miles, dirt, 3-Year-Olds

The Oaklawn meeting is known, among other things, for classy maiden races, and this is a good example: there are some well-bred and talented colts here. Of them, we like 1-Kentucky Summer: he's very well bred, by top sire Curlin out of a mare named Dream of Summer, who won the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn duripng her racing career, and who has several stakes winners among her offspring. He's also a May foal, which is late, and looks to be the kind of late-blooming sort who should flourish now that he's a 3-year-old. An added bonus is that he has a significant edge in figures: the 70 Beyer Speed Figure he earned in his last start, a 5th place finish in the slop in a maiden race at Churchill Downs, is by far the highest any horse in the field has earned. We will bet him to win at 2-1. The bet: Oaklawn Park, Race 4, $35 to win on 1-Kentucky Summer.

Oaklawn Park, Race 6, 3:56 pm ET

Maiden Special Weight, 1 1/16 miles, dirt, 3-Year-Olds

This race has the same conditions as the 4th, and we mention that because the results of the 4th will provide some good insight into how this one will likely play out. We say that because the colt we like, 2-Ahsad, comes out of the same race as Kentucky Summer in the 4th, a Maiden Special Weight at Churchill Downs on November 30. Ahsad finished third in that race; Kentucky Summer 5th, but that prior contast looks like a key race to us, and if Kentucky Summer wins the 4th, it's a very powerful sign that we can bet Ahsad aggressively. These key races, where multiple horses in them win in their next starts, happen from time to time, and when we identify one, we jump the horses coming out of it. We will do so today; we will bet Ahsad to win. The bet: Oaklawn Park, Race 6, $40 to win on 2-Ahsad.

Oaklawn Park, Race 7, 4:24 pm ET

Allowance/Optional Claiming, 6 furlongs, dirt, 4 & Up

A full field of 12 goes in this one. 2-Nero is a strong play: he has an edge in speed figures, and his abundant early speed should allow him avoid trouble from his inside post position, and get a good stalking spot just behind the pacesetters. He makes his first start for trainer Steve Asmussen, after a productive career with Bob Baffert in California: he has hit the board in seven of his eight career California starts. We think he merits a play at 3-1; we will bet him to win. The bet: Oaklawn Park, Race 7, #5 to win on 2-Nero.

Oaklawn Park, Race 8, 4:52 pm ET

$150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes, 1 mile, dirt, 3-year-olds

The day's lone stakes is the Smarty Jones, named after the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner. It is fitting that it is for 3-year-olds, and that it is at Oaklawn Park, as it there that Smarty made a name for himself nationally. It's a good race that drew a good field of nine.

We like a long shot in the race: 3-Shared Sense, who's trained by Brad Cox. He's a maiden, winless in three career starts, but he's run well in all three of them, and has both the breeding (by Street Sense, out of a Bernardini mare) and the looks to be a lot better at 3 than he was as a juvenile. We like the aggressive placement of him here by Cox: he could have opted for a much softer spot, but instead chose a stakes, which means that he thinks Shared Sense is a runner .

Another interesting angle is the almost unbelievable fact that he exits the same race as Kentucky Summer in the 4th and Ahsad in the 6th: we've seen key races before, but we can't remember ever seeing three horses come out of one, and run in three different races on the same card. We will endorse Shared Sense here, irrespective of the results of the earlier races, and we will bet prudently, but we will also make a suggestion: if Kentucky Summer and Ahsad win their respective races, loosen the rubber band around the bankroll when going to the windows on Shared Sense in the Smarty Jones. We will bet him to win. The bet: Oaklawn Park, Race 8, $40 to win on 3-Shared Sense.

That's all for today. We will be back tomorrow with a look at the stakes racing across the country, including the Pegagus World Cup card at Gulfstream Park. Until then, as always, good luck at the windows.

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