04/12/2012 3:35PM

Hovdey: Oaklawn Handicap shares spotlight, but refuses to play second fiddle

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Tom Keyser
Hymn Book is part of a star-studded lineup in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Park Handicap.

On the face of it, the signals coming from Oaklawn Park were decidedly mixed. Tradition, a hallowed concept in Hot Springs, was looking like a slippery proposition.

An appearance by Horse of the Year Havre de Grace apparently was squandered for want of a single, solitary pound’s worth of compromise in the assignment of weights for Friday’s Apple Blossom Handicap. The champ got 123, six more than last year’s Kentucky Oaks winner Plum Pretty, and that was that. Havre de Grace’s people passed, and the integrity of the handicap system was preserved in all its archaic splendor.

So far, so good.

Then up jumps the closing-day card on Saturday and . . . what’s this! The Oaklawn Handicap, one of the crown jewels of the older division, repository of a history that includes Temperence Hill, Wild Again, Snow Chief, and Cigar, and forever a stand-alone event during Oaklawn’s climactic Racing Festival of the South, is relegated to the undercard on a 12-race program led by the $1 million Arkansas Derby.

This is akin to Springsteen opening for Lady Gaga. How can a racetrack notorious for dragging its feet into the second half of the 20th century, let alone the 21st, undermine its headline event for mature runners with second billing? The trend at many tracks is to cluster big events Breeders’ Cup style, but Oaklawn figured to be the last place such an option would be considered. Then came the answer:

Tradition.

Seems the archane calculus of determining Easter Sunday put the 2012 holiday in direct conflict with a seamless presentation of Oaklawn’s week’s worth of major events, Easter falling as it did on April 8. And the Cella family, owners of Oaklawn, have never raced on Easter Sunday.

This gave racing secretary Pat Pope the challenge of finding a spot somewhere in the final four days of the season for optimum presentation of the Oaklawn Handicap. But in moving the Oaklawn Handicap to Arkansas Derby Day track officials not only risked the diminution of a significant event, but also placed it in direct conflict with the $1 million Charles Town Classic to be run Saturday evening in West Virginia.

The Charles Town event, at the same main track 1 1/8 miles as the Oaklawn Handicap, lured 13 entries (including three also-eligibles), led by the always tough Tackleberry, New York invader Redding Colliery, and defending champ Duke of Mischief.

“Whenever you make a change like we did with the Handicap, you’re always concerned if the scheduling will fit with the horses you’re trying to get,” Pope said. “What we ended up with, well, the only word I can think to use is wow.”

No argument here. For a purse of $400,000, the Oaklawn Handicap attracted a field of eight. Any other year the favorite might be Alternation, who has swept the Essex and Razorback Handicaps at the Oaklawn meet this season with quick, conclusive performances, or Win Wily, who was just 5-1 when he upset Misremembered in the 2011 Oaklawn Handicap, or Nehro, runner-up in the 2011 Arkansas, Louisiana, and Kentucky derbies and impressive in his debut as a 4-year-old.

Only on Saturday those three must deal with Hymn Book, the emerging star of the Shug McGaughey stable whose win in the Donn Handicap was a brave and determined piece of work, and with Ron the Greek, whose ascension to the top of the older ranks for Bill Mott was validated last time out when he made swift work of the Santa Anita Handicap.

“Maybe we just kind of stumbled on a field like this,” Pope said. “But I’ve always said I’d rather be lucky than anything else.”

The idea that the Oaklawn Handicap and Charles Town Classic are run on the same day makes no real sense, except that such conflicts appear to happen more often than not.

“A long time ago, it was said that we needed someone to designate the 10 or 15 defining races for the division that would bring the best horses together,” Pope said. “But then, when everyone gets in that room to decide, no one wants to give up a lot.”

It’s no big deal, I guess, as long as the folks at Charles Town are happy with their overflow bunch of Grade 2 and 3 runners, while Oaklawn drew the available cream of the crop. Many of the Sunday morning headlines will follow the West Virginia casino money, while serious racing fans will know what kind of performance it took to win in Arkansas.

For that matter, the Oaklawn operation deserved a Handicap of quality after losing a chance to put Havre de Grace on display in defense of her Apple Blossom title. Oaklawn fans suffered, and only five went in the Apple Blossom anyway. But Pope declined to second-guess himself about the weights to which owner Rick Porter and trainer Larry Jones objected, content he was being true to his thankless job.

“We had 10 nominations for the Apple Blossom, so I have to go at the weights as if I want all 10 horses to start,” Pope said.

Major handicaps are slowly fading away, facing challenges from more creatively weighted events. Havre de Grace now is being pointed to the La Troienne Stakes at Churchill Downs on May 4, in which she would carry 120 pounds and give away no more than five pounds.

“Traditionally, there were races that I call ‘self-defined,’ ” Pope observed. “If you really wanted to be on the track to national recognition, there were certain races you had to make. They were at the right time at the right distance, and everybody recognized their worth. Unfortunately that’s not the way the business is going right now.

“I still think there’s still a place for a tradition like carrying weight in a handicap,” Pope added. “There’s been no talk of changing either the Apple Blossom or the Oaklawn Handicap from handicaps to some type of invitationals. I’m fortunate to work for people who believe in the way racing was, is, and should be.”