12/29/2016 2:36PM

The bloom is off the American Oaks


The oak tree in winter is not a pretty sight. Barren of its multilobed leaves, months from the flowering that brings forth acorns, it stands in scratchy silhouette against the gray winter sky, waiting to be reborn in the spring.

Which brings us to the American Oaks, to be run on Saturday, Dec. 31, at Santa Anita Park.

Yet another refugee from the rubble of Hollywood Park, the American Oaks is perhaps the saddest casualty of a once-proud stakes schedule, a young race of the warm early summer that made sense from the get-go, with a rich history already in the making when the curtain was pulled.

There was the fireworks display of pint-sized Megahertz and the disqualified Dublino in 2002. The Irish invasion of Dimitrova and Dermot Weld in 2003. The tour de force by the Japanese filly Cesario in 2005, and the victory of Wait a While in 2006, on her way to a championship season.

Santa Anita Park management has tried valiantly to absorb the best of the Hollywood races, but in many cases the thrill is gone, and the names – Vanity, Gold Cup, Californian – only remind us of what was lost.

The American Oaks once had the name, the purse, the date, the setting, and even a brief flirtation of sponsorship with American Airlines. Now it’s just another race on an attractive New Year’s Eve program.

If the Santa Anita version of the two most recent runnings – won by the good fillies Spanish Queen and Room Service – suffered by comparison with its Hollywood past, blame it on New York’s creation of the $1 million Belmont Oaks Invitational. With the stroke of a pen, plus all that NYRA casino money, the West Coast race was elbowed from the spotlight, displaced to late May, and tagged with that heart-sinking description – a prep.

Now here we are in late December, a race out of tune with its roots. An Oaks is meant for fillies reaching their peak as maturing 3-year-olds, still protected from their elders but expected to shine, whether the race is on grass or dirt, run in Kentucky, Delaware, or Del Mar.

The 13 entered for the American Oaks on Saturday will be about eight hours away from turning 4. Eleven already have run against older fillies and mares, and three of the Oaks entrants were nominated to run in the Grade 3 Robert J. Frankel Stakes the same day.

The 13 assembled are a fun bunch, although so far they are lacking in the kind of credentials needed to help maintain the Grade 1 rating attached to the American Oaks. Mokat and Cheekaboo are the only Grade 2 race winners in the field. Decked Out just missed in the Del Mar Oaks. Stays in Vegas was last seen lapped on Miss Temple City in the Matriarch. And Sassy Little Lila was sent west by Brad Cox, who probably could run his bookkeeper right now and get a piece of the purse.

A shift of seven months on the calendar required special dispensation from the American Graded Stakes Committee for Saturday’s American Oaks to retain its Grade 1 rating, for now. And perhaps this is the only place on the calendar where such a race might survive intact. Otherwise, put its $300,000 purse on the $100,000 Robert J. Frankel and turn that one into an event worthy of its name.

Remembering Russ

The bronze star is the fourth-highest military decoration, awarded for “heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement, or meritorious service in a combat zone.”

Russ Harris won three bronze stars, just doing his job as the U.S. Army fought its way through France, Belgium, and into Germany during the end days of World War II. He would talk about his war a little, mostly to laugh at the pickup ballgames during the rare quiet times along the way when unsuspecting fellow G.I.s got a look at the Russ Harris fastball. He had an arm like a howitzer.

Harris died this week at 93, in an old folks home near Philadelphia, forgotten by no one who ever knew him. There were few things he did not do well. He could report the hell out of a racing story, handicap a card to death, and still have time to take on Bill Shoemaker at ping-pong in the jocks’ room. Only a fool bet against him.

Tributes from younger colleagues are describing Harris as the last of a breed. Maybe so. I prefer to think of him as one of a kind, a man of letters with an insatiable intellect, who bestowed upon racing the talents he could have used anywhere. Steven Crist – I still call him boss – described Harris as the best public handicapper of all time, and Crist should know. He is about to win the Eclipse Award of Merit for, among many other things, his passion to make the public better handicappers.

In 2003, Harris was chosen by his fellow writers to receive the Walter Haight Award for career excellence. His beloved wife, Ethel, was ailing at the time, which meant Harris needed a pinch hitter. Whether I was his second, fifth, or 10th choice didn’t matter. Just standing for a moment in the large footprints of Russ Harris, accepting on his behalf, was an honor beyond words. All I could think of was how lucky I was to be called his friend.