This Side Up: Hope Springs Eternal With Tom's d'Etat

Tom's d'Etat makes his first start since winning the GI Clark H. in November | Coady


Hot Springs has long been a sanctuary when people need to avoid New York. The mobster Owney Madden settled there in 1935; the following year, its casinos and obliging law enforcement made it an obvious place for Lucky Luciano to lie low. A relative concept, lying low: Luciano was swanking around the Hotel Arlington with his showgirl Gay Orlova, a Russian refugee described by Broadway impresario Earl Carroll as “the sexiest gal who ever worked for me.” Luciano was dressed up for the races on Apr. 1 when he had the misfortune to be observed, strolling down Bathhouse Row with a corrupt local detective, by a New York investigator in town on another case. Thomas E. Dewey had his April Fool.

Luciano had fled Manhattan after a Waldorf Hotel employee tipped him off that a couple of detectives were on their way up to the 29th floor for a conversation. Unfortunately, the terrible enemy that has made New York unsafe for racing, and so many other places besides, is too insidious to notify us of its approach. Collectively, then, our besieged community finds itself renewing the spa city's past as a mountain hideout–and with no less gratitude, for each day that it can prolong our diminishing pleasures.

If Oaklawn Park can hold out until the first Saturday in May, its owners and management will deserve not only the attention of stir-crazy handicappers, coast-to-coast, but also the recognition of posterity. Because the shrewdly postponed and extended GI Arkansas Derby would be the closest thing to a Kentucky Derby staged this year, regardless of whatever Churchill Downs may contrive in September.

We are all learning to take things one day at a time, however, so even today–in enjoying what would in ordinary times be Derby day in Hot Springs–we must record our thanks for a silver lining to the clouds over our industry. For there are an awful lot of horses out there, rather like Luciano when diverted from Oaklawn Park to jail, who are all dressed up with no place to go. And, as a result, a $150,000 listed race is dignified by two Grade I winners plus another beaten a neck at that level last September.

Two of this trio, admittedly, are looking to regroup after disappointing when fancied for the GI Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. (Both finished behind Snapper Sinclair {City Zip}, who excelled himself in fourth and himself warrants mention as one of three millionaires in this field.) That dip, however, completed very different graph-lines for their respective sophomore campaigns. Mr. Money (Goldencents) was entitled to a flat battery, having gone on a seamless and lucrative streak of four Grade III wins before that near-miss in the GI Pennsylvania Derby. In contrast, Improbable (City Zip) had become rather a disappointment: he'd been an unbeaten Grade I winner at two, but ultimately hinted that he might be running low on gas round two turns.

Even so, he actually started favorite for both the GI Kentucky Derby and GI Preakness S. after shaping positively in two springtime visits to Hot Springs. In the Arkansas Derby itself, he failed by just a length to catch the wonderful Omaha Beach (War Front), with a certain Country House (Lookin At Lucky) emerging for a distant third; and he had previously been caught on the wire by Long Range Toddy (Take Charge Indy)–who is again lying in wait today–in a division of the GII Rebel S.

That, lest we forget, was another case of Oaklawn stepping up to the plate in a time of need. In fact, it's wholesome to remind ourselves of the sense of panicked exposure that troubled our community when Santa Anita had to scrap the GII San Felipe S. while trying to figure out what was going wrong with their beautiful racetrack. That felt like us against the world, and it was horrible. But what would we give, now, for the sport to be challenged merely to justify its place in modern life? As it is, the threshold of recklessness has become so narrow that we find ourselves restored to the mainstream, stricken alongside so many other walks of life.

For the time being, all we can do is try to rotate the same sense of perspective that makes Santa Anita's harrowing spring now seem rather a distant memory. This time next year, perhaps, the present nightmare will also seem a chapter long gratefully concluded. And if in the meantime we need a model for playing the long game, we need not seek far today.

First of all, there's Oaklawn president Louis Cella, whose great-grandfather founded the track 104 years ago. The family is seeing the bigger picture, salvaging a precarious foothold for the national industry, even though revenue from the adjacent casino has been shut off by the coronavirus.

And then there's Tom's d'Etat (Smart Strike), morning-line favorite for the Oaklawn Mile.

Though he is now seven, it feels like only now is Tom's d'Etat getting anywhere near his full potential, and we must wish his connections continued reward for their perseverance. How apt that his stakes breakthrough should have taken place in the Tenacious S. at Fair Grounds–the second of nine starts inside 13 months, climaxed by his dominant success in the GI Clark H. last November. He is no Tenacious, mind you: the Bayou legend, foaled in 1954, made 112 starts across six years. Tom's d'Etat, troubled by various physical issues, had in contrast compiled only seven starts through his first four years in training.

He is trained by Al Stall Jr., whose late father will certainly have admired Tenacious in his heyday, having served 28 years as chairman of the Louisiana Racing Commission. Stall is himself a Crescent City fixture, of course, and the way he has brought Tom's d'Etat to fulfilment is a testament to his patience and skill. He views this as the most talented animal he has trained bar Blame (Arch) himself, and resisted any temptation to squeeze the lemon in the GI Pegasus World Cup in order to freshen up Tom's d'Etat for a campaign working back from the GI Breeders' Cup Classic.

When he won that race with Blame in 2010, poor Stall found himself ungraciously cast as villain for spoiling the immaculate record of Zenyatta (Street Cry {Ire}) on her swansong. The idea of Tom's d'Etat securing his trainer a more deserved ovation from packed stands at Keeneland in November is one to sustain us, however he fares in the echo chamber of Oaklawn today. It was at Keeneland, remember, that Tom's d'Etat really announced his belated blossoming when stringing out the GII Hagyard Fayette S. field on his way to his romp in the Clark.

The Classic is an ambition commensurate with the decision to keep going with Tom's d'Etat, because there would surely have been farms interested in giving such a well-bred Grade I winner a chance at stud. His graded stakes-placed dam is by Giant's Causeway out of a full-sister to none other than Candy Ride (Arg), with all the speed-carrying flair that entails.

Possibly that didn't mean quite as much as it does now, when Tom's d'Etat still made $330,000 as a September yearling back in 2014. (He was bred, incidentally, by SF Bloodstock–who promptly sold his dam. SF Racing takes him on today as co-owner of Improbable). Anyhow, for a horse to be thriving with maturity like this is hardly surprising in a son of Smart Strike: we see much the same influence coming through stallion sons such as Curlin, Lookin At Lucky and English Channel.

Certainly there was substance as well as style to those breakout performances last fall, Tom's d'Etat having been followed panting onto the podium by Mr Freeze (To Honor And Serve) in both the Fayette and the Clark. And that horse has since finished second in the Pegasus and won the GII Gulfstream Park Mile.

Tom's d'Etat is named for Tom Benson, the New Orleans Saints owner who passed away in 2018, and carries the G M B Racing silks of his widow Gayle. Coincidentally, much the same happened with Tenacious, who was bred and raced in the name of Dorothy Dorsett Brown. Her husband, the oilman Joe W. Brown, died just as their horse was beginning to peak.

To this day the Joe W. and Dorothy Dorsett Brown Foundation supports various noble causes according to the mission “Alleviate Human Suffering.” Our species could certainly do with a little relief right now, albeit Joe W. Brown also knew that people need succour of a more frivolous kind. Besides a racing stable, he invested in casinos and helped put Las Vegas on the map with his Horseshoe Club, where he displayed $1 million in $10,000 bills in an eight-foot golden horseshoe.

It was Las Vegas that filled the gap when post-war Hot Springs was cleaned up under the gallant leadership of Sid McMath–“a true hero,” in the words of one of his successors as state governor (and subsequently 42nd president of the United States). They still have the thermal baths, however, and with Tom's d'Etat in town let's hope we can all share some rejuvenating therapy.

Any port in a storm, they say. Hence this madly competitive race for the grade. But Oaklawn is a haven even in happier times, and the entire industry will owe the Cella family a debt of gratitude if it can remain a safe one until the first Saturday in May.

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