Trainer Ron Moquett was in his usual spot Wednesday morning at Oaklawn, preparing to watch Whitmore train following the second break to renovate the racing surface.
Of course, the scene was much different than the previous five years. Whitmore and Moquett’s wife, Laura, also the gelding’s regular exercise rider, weren’t going to the track to prepare for a big race – they were preparing for a big day.
Saturday is “Whitmore Day” at Oaklawn, which honors the now-retired 2020 Eclipse Award winner (champion male sprinter), seven-time Oaklawn stakes winner and among the most popular horses in its 117-year history. Whitmore won Oaklawn’s Hot Springs Stakes a record four consecutive years (2017-2020) and its Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3) a record three times (2017, 2018 and 2020).
“I know that a lot of people like him,” said Ron Moquett, who also co-owned Whitmore throughout his racing career. “Of course, I’m close to people that do. I don’t know how the average people are. All my friends are pumped about it (Whitmore Day).”
Oaklawn announced in early September that March 19 would be Whitmore Day. It renamed the Hot Springs Stakes after the gelding, with the inaugural $200,000 Whitmore Stakes (G3) for older horses at 6 furlongs headlining the March 19 card. Oaklawn also renamed the Count Fleet barn, Whitmore’s longtime home in Hot Springs, after the now-9-year-old gelding.
Fans attending Saturday will receive commemorative Whitmore baseball cards as they enter, while supplies last. Free Whitmore T-shirts, while supplies last, can be redeemed on the north end of the first floor following the second race. First post Saturday is 1 p.m. (Central). Gates open at 11 a.m. Probable post time for the Whitmore Stakes, which goes as the seventh race, is 4:04 p.m.
And, if all goes as a planned, fans also will see Whitmore, who was retired after suffering a leg injury during a fifth-place finish in the $600,000 Forego Stakes (G1) Aug. 28 at Saratoga.
Whitmore returned to Oaklawn in early March and has been on the track this week as part of his continuing education for a possible transition from star horse to stable pony.
Briefly replicating his former career, Saturday’s script calls for Whitmore to follow the field from the barn area to the track for the Whitmore Stakes, then head into the horseshoe-shaped hedge infield winner’s circle, traditionally used for stakes, as the horses are being saddled in the paddock.
Whitmore, ridden by Laura Moquett, will then lead the post parade for the Whitmore Stakes.
“I’m running horses that day and none of them are Whitmore, but at least I get to lead him over and all that,” Ron Moquett said while sitting in the second-floor grandstand across from the finish line. “That’s the thing. That’s what this sport is about. I don’t care if anybody knows me, but I’m so humbled that they know him.”
A chestnut son of Pleasantly Perfect, Whitmore bankrolled $4,502,350 – 88th in North American history through Thursday – after winning 15 of 43 starts, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization.
Whitmore won the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) in 2020 at Keeneland, but much of his best work came at Oaklawn, where he compiled a towering 9-6-1 record from 16 starts and earned $1,752,600. Swift Ruler, a local star during the 1960s, is the only other horse in Oaklawn history with seven career stakes victories.
Moquett said Whitmore was sent to Rebecca Maker’s equine rehabilitation and breaking facility in Kentucky following the Forego. Whitmore normally decompressed there the last several years before returning to Oaklawn – his winter home at every meeting in 2016-2021 – for a new racing campaign.
Whitmore returned to Arkansas in late November, settling at Oaklawn’s satellite training center about 25 miles east of Hot Springs, where Moquett also keeps horses. Laura Moquett, also her husband’s assistant, has been charged with trying to re-train Whitmore for pony work, which encompasses escorting horses to and from the track during morning training hours.
Whitmore was a noted bad actor at 2 and gelded before his first start. Although he mellowed with age, Whitmore would kick his rear legs before loading into the starting gate for some races.
Moquett said Whitmore’s transition to a possible new career is going well.
“Typical him – he asks a lot of questions and he demands answers,” Moquett said. “We just let him do what he wants to do and figure it all out. Laura’s great with him. He’s smart enough to do it. It’s just whether or not we want to do it. We’re going to bring him over here for the people and then from that point on we’re going to let him tell us. He may want to be a jumper. He could be a stable pony all the way to being a peppermint-eating lawn ornament. He’ll do something for us.”
Whitmore retired as the leading money winner in history among North American-based sprinters, bankrolling $4,098,600 in 37 starts under a mile. Moquett began targeting sprint races after Whitmore finished 19th in the 2016 Kentucky Derby.
Moquett was seated across from trainer Tom Van Berg during training hours Wednesday morning. Van Berg’s father, the late Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg, won the 1987 Kentucky Derby with Alysheba, who retired the following year with a then-North American record $6,679,242 in career earnings. Alysheba was champion 3-year-old male and 1988 Horse of the Year.
“Tom’s dad was a household name for horse trainers, but Alysheba is what introduced his dad’s name, the family’s name, to the next level,” Moquett said. “I don’t give a dang if they ever know who I am, but it’s pretty cool to have a horse that they know who it is.”
As a bloodstock agent, David Ingordo was responsible for selecting Zenyatta, among the most celebrated stakes winners in Oaklawn history.
Now, Ingordo’s wife, trainer Cherie DeVaux, has a chance to record her first Oaklawn stakes victory when Tulane Tryst makes his local debut in Saturday’s $200,000 Whitmore (G3) for older horses at 6 furlongs.
DeVaux, a former assistant to four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown and now-retired trainer Chuck Simon, has started three horses at Oaklawn – all during the 2021 meeting – with Our Super Freak finishing second against older fillies and mares in the $150,000 Pippin Stakes and $250,000 Bayakoa Stakes (G3). Ingordo, in partnership, campaigned Our Super Freak and owns Tulane Tryst outright.
Tulane Tryst is seeking his third consecutive victory after coming from off the pace to capture an entry-level allowance sprint by 2 ¾ lengths Nov. 20 at Churchill Downs and an allowance sprint by 7 ¼ lengths Feb. 10 at Fair Grounds in his last start. The Feb. 10 victory generated a career-topping 91 Beyer Speed Figure.
DeVaux said the timing of the Whitmore – formerly known as the Hot Springs Stakes – is ideal for Tulane Tryst’s return to stakes company after finishing fifth in the $400,000 Woody Stephens (G1) for 3-year-old sprinters last June at Belmont Park. He didn’t resurface until Oct. 14.
“We just wanted to get him started once before we figured out what to do with him next at Fair Grounds,” DeVaux said Tuesday afternoon. “He won quite impressively. It’s our own horse, so we can be patient with him and view what we think is right and only run him when we think he’s going to run a good race. He ran well and came out of it well, so it was just the next logical progression, as long as he was training well enough.”
A 4-year-old son of super sire Into Mischief, Tulane Tryst has a 3-2-0 record from seven lifetime starts and earnings of $199,000. He brought $310,000 at the 2019 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. Although the Whitmore is the final major local prep for the $500,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3) at 6 furlongs April 16, DeVaux said it’s “race by race” with Tulane Tryst. He’s 9-2 on the morning line for the Whitmore.
“Soundness-wise, he’s fine,” DeVaux said. “He just can get a little light on us, so we just try to give him plenty of spacing between his starts.”
DeVaux started her first horse in 2018 and had a career year in 2021 with 32 victories and $2,407,893 in purse earnings, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. DeVaux, who has strings at Fair Grounds and in Kentucky, said she plans to saddle Tulane Tryst for the Whitmore.
“I was there many, many years ago for Chuck Simon,” DeVaux said. “I don’t know what year it was, but it was many, many years ago.”
Ingordo selected Zenyatta for owners Jerry and Ann Moss, who purchased the filly for $60,000 at the 2005 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. Zenyatta went on to win 19 of 20 career starts, including Oaklawn’s $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) for older fillies and mares in 2008 and 2010, and earn $7,304,580.
Zenyatta was a three-time Eclipse Award winner (2008, 2009 and 2010) for champion older female, 2010 Horse of the Year and a 2016 inductee into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
Oaklawn has a barn named in Zenyatta’s honor.
John Hiraldo, a 2021 finalist for an Eclipse Award as the country’s champion apprentice, rode two winners Thursday. Hiraldo won the first race aboard Ima Bling Cat ($8) for trainer Steve Hobby of Hot Springs and the fifth race aboard favored Epworth ($8.20) for trainer Randy Morse. Hiraldo topped all apprentice riders at the 2021-2022 meeting through Thursday with 16 victories and had 94 in his career, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. Hiraldo said his goal is to reach 100 victories before he loses his apprentice weight allowance in April. … Ima Bling Cat represented the 302nd career Oaklawn victory for Hobby. Epworth was the 298th career Oaklawn victory for Morse. … Millionaire multiple Grade 2 winner Lone Rock remains on course for the $150,000 Temperence Hill Stakes for older horses at 1 ½ miles April 2, trainer Robertino Diodoro said Wednesday morning. Lone Rock finished second in last year’s Temperence Hill. … Record-setting Strong Tide “probably” is headed to the Temperence Hill, trainer Mike Lauer said Thursday morning. Strong Tide set Oaklawn’s 1 3/16-mile track record (1:56.33) in a Jan. 9 allowance race and was a 10 ½-length allowance winner at 1 ½ miles Feb. 25 in his last start.
Oaklawn Barn Notes
Photo: Whitmore, (Coady Photography)