Season’s Greetings and Partings

by John Engelhardt

posted on September 1, 2011 in Uncategorized | No Comments >>

Catlaunch and Ivan Vazquez at Barn 3

Catlaunch and Ivan Vazquez at Barn 3

Hurricane Irene is racing up the east coast right now, but all is well here in the midwest.

Had the option to go backslapping with a buddy at A.J.’s Roadhouse who won the first race today – or take in an evening as the lone soul in the grandstand enjoying a Cuban cigar jockey Francisco Vidal gave me after visiting his father in Panama.  I think I made the right choice.

The sprinklers soaking the turf course have been silenced and now they’ve been replaced by the soothing sound of the fountain playing its chorus on the infield pond.  For a sporting venue that bustles and hustles with a bevy of colorful sights, sounds and characters, it is amazingly still tonight.  In a few hours the rhythm of hooves will be greeting daylight on the deep grooved main track.

Taking a deep draw on that Cohiba, it is time to relax and reflect on a successful season that is only days away from ending.  Ahhhh, what a good one it was, though it wasn’t without a few bumps in the road.  While Irene is wreaking havok now, this area experienced its wettest April in history.  River Downs had to push opening day back two weeks and had no live racing on Kentucky Derby Day, while evacuating horses off the backstretch due to flooding.  Things got back up and running and thanks to the new management team of Pinnacle Entertainment, who recognized the value of marketing, advertising, promotion and improved customer service.  Racing is flourishing again at this Cincinnati oval.  Fans returned to this storied track that has hosted the Sport of Kings since 1925.  Just when things got going good, Mother Nature turned up the heat to tie the record for consecutive 90 plus degree days – but it didn’t keep a good track down.

With all that said and a welcome cool breeze floating through the grandstand, time for another relaxing draw on this cigar and a moment to reflect on the season’s greetings.

He may not be a household name, but it has been a unique pleasure to watch jockey Perry Ouzts ply his trade here this summer.  He is the 18th leading rider in the history of the sport.  Think about that for a minute in the realm of sports figures.  He has ridden here for 39 seasons and has won 23 riding titles.  At this writing, he is on top of the standings by 56 wins.  At 57-years-old, he has ridden over 5,700 winners and has been on over 43,000 mounts.  What have you done 43,000 times besides blink or smile?  Trainer Ken McPeek, who saddled his first winner at River Downs, put Perry up on Old Man Buck when he won the $200,000 Cradle Stakes.  After the race he told me, “If Perry decided to go to New York or Chicago years ago – he would have been the leading rider at any of those tracks.  He just decided to stay here.”  Perry Ouzts decided to be a family man and racked up those wins on mostly hard to handle claimers.  In the words of John Lennon, “A Working Man’s Hero Is Something To Be.”

At the other end of the spectrum, it has been an enjoyable season watching young riders develop.  Jockeys who got their start at River Downs include the legendary Steve Cauthen, last winner of the Triple Crown, Larry Adams, James Graham, John McKee and the red-hot Rafael Bejarano.  This year, 33-year-old apprentice Amanda Tamburello is in the second spot behind Ouzts and while getting into the sport later than most, appears to have a bright future.  Hall of Famer Chris McCarron is using River Downs as his North American Racing Academy’s Master’s Degree Program.  In the jock’s room are Ben Creed, Adam Bowman, Cory Orm, Natalie Turner and Crystal Carmen.  Each one is hard-working and effervescent in their approach to to riding and embrace the love of their profession.  A tribute to their mentor.

This little track has in modern times launched the stakes career of Spend A Buck, Harlan’s Holiday and Bellamy Road.  This season has held stage to two horses that will never make it to the Hall of Fame but will hold a special place in the heart of local fans and horse lovers.  12 years ago trainer Rick Jordan laid eyes on a nice colt he liked at a 2-year-old in training sale in Maryland.  He bid up to $4,000 and the hammer fell at auction.  Little did Rick Jordan suspect that the horse he named Eagle Time in 1999, would still be winning races in 2011 at the age of 14. Eagle Time recorded his 15th victory in his 80th lifetime start while boosting his career earnings to $273,311 this summer.  Back in 2000, Eagle Time won the Texas Derby in his sixth lifetime start and followed that with a second-place finish in the Reilly Allison Derby at Sunland Park.  The following year he won the Memorial Day Handicap at Mountaineer Park and followed that effort with a secnd-place finish in the Independance Day Handicap there.  He will have a reitrement party at the track on Labor Day.

Ron Field’s popular Catlaunch will also make an appearance in the paddock on the final day of live racing.  He will be accompanied by his trainer Ivan Vazquez who has been with the 10-year-old since he was a 2-year-old.  Under his watchful eye, the Ohio-bred Catlaunch has twice been named Ohio Horse of the Year and after winning three stakes races this season he passed the $1 million mark.  His “catch me if you can” running style has dubbed him “Ohio’s Superman.”  It will be a fitting tribute to both horses and their connections on Labor Day – hard work and class acts deserve recognition on every level.

You’ve got to love this game. It has been a roller coaster season for this picturesque track once named Coney Island.  When the ride is over, you’ll see many more highs than lows.

Time to leave this melodic choir of crickets and one last puff of this Cohiba…good night Irene, good night.