A pair of cool California invaders made their way deep into the Ozark Mountains for the opening weekend of Oaklawn Park's Racing Festival of the South and came away the big winners. For the first time in Festival history, Oaklawn featured the Oaklawn and Apple Blossom Handicaps, both grade I and worth $500,000 each, on the same card, making April 6 the richest day ever in Arkansas racing. A season-high crowd of 31,046 watched as Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella and Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye teamed up with Kudos to win the Oaklawn Handicap. It was the second Oaklawn Handicap victory for Mandella and the third for Delahoussaye. Ninety minutes later, it was Azeri sporting the familiar red, white, and blue silks of the late Allen Paulson, winning the Apple Blossom. The Oaklawn Handicap might have boasted a short field with only eight runners, but it was bursting at the seams with diverse talent. The field featured everything from a horse making just his fifth start on the dirt, to another making his debut in stakes company, and one more just hoping to overcome last year's string of bad luck. And those were just the first three finishers. Kudos crossed the wire 4 3/4 lengths ahead of Bowman's Band, with Dollar Bill a head back in third. This Fleet Is Due finished 1 1/2 lengths behind Dollar Bill in fourth. Crafty Shaw was a neck farther back in fifth. Completing the order of finish was Graeme Hall, the slight 2-1 betting favorite over Kudos, Mr Ross, and Secret Romeo. "Considering he was the least experienced horse in the field, his race was tremendous," said Michael Matz, the trainer of Bowman's Band. "I am just excited. He's grade I-placed." Matz said Bowman's Band would hit the East Coast handicap division this summer. "I don't know what's next exactly, but he's proven he can run with grade I company."Dallas Stewart, trainer of Dollar Bill, was also pleased with his colt's performance. "This is only his second out since the layoff. He has no speed, so he never seems to get any good positions. But I am pleased with the way he came running. We'll get 'em next time." Delahoussaye's third Oaklawn Handicap victory unfolded much the same way as his earlier triumphs aboard Festin in 1991 and Jovial in 1994--with the trademark Eddie D. late move. "I thought (Kudos) would be close to the lead in the early going," said Mandella, who won the 1997 Oaklawn Handicap with Atticus. "But he looked like he just wasn't real comfortable going by the first time, and Eddie being the master that he is didn't rush things. "He just let him settle into stride and probably sensed that they were going along at a pretty good pace and thought, 'I'll just wait and take one big shot at it.' And that's the way it came off." And with that, Kudos, a 5-year-old gelding by Kris S., notched his first grade I victory. However, the trip to the winner's circle wasn't quite that simple.
Kudos broke a bit to the inside from post seven and bumped with Dollar Bill. Heading into the first turn, the winner dropped back to last as Crafty Shaw took the field through an opening quarter in :23.01. Following a half-mile in :46.38, Kudos was 16 lengths behind but took aim on the leaders rounding the second turn. By the time Kudos reached the quarter pole, he was on a mission. "I was a little farther back than I wanted to be," Delahoussaye said. "I didn't know if he was going to get untracked. At the five-eighths pole, I started calling on him and he started giving it to me. He kicked it in the last quarter-mile." Just like Festin and Jovial.Under a vigorous hand-ride from Delahoussaye, Kudos, on the outside early, reached the front approaching the sixteenth pole and was drawing away at the finish. Carrying 117 pounds, he completed the 11/8 miles in 1:48.34, with the final eighth in a brisk :12.14.If his performance in the Oaklawn Handicap is any indictor, Kudos, who has made 14 starts on the grass, has found a new home on dirt. "I think he's a better dirt horse than a grass horse, and he's a darn good grass horse," Mandella said. Kudos made his third start on the dirt on Feb. 17 in the restricted San Marino Handicap at Santa Anita, which was originally scheduled for the turf. Following that, he finished third, beaten 41/4 lengths by Milwaukee Brew in the March 2 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I). "He started getting real good on the dirt in January and February, when he was training with Redattore, and by that time there were no dirt races open, so when the San Marino came up I was praying for rain because I wanted to give him a shot on the dirt," said Mandella, who conditions homebred Kudos for Jerome and Ann Moss. Mandella said Kudos could make his next start at Hollywood Park in either the grade II Californian Stakes June 15 or the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) July 14. The ultimate goal for Kudos is the Oct. 26 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) at Arlington Park.Continued... (at the (Chart, Equibase)