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story.lead_photo.caption Sonneteer and jockey C.J. McMahon race toward the finish line Friday to win the $125,000 Fifth Season Stakes during the opening day of the live-racing season at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs. - Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun

HOT SPRINGS -- Reactions to opening day among horsemen come in many forms.

Trainer Chris Hartman spoke to how special Friday at Oaklawn Park was to him.

"Here at Oaklawn, this is like the season-opener in baseball," he said "We've been locked up waiting to run for 45 days, so we're pretty excited. It's a special time here. People love the racing and that adds to the excitement."

Trainer Greg Burchell held off on the romanticism.

Gallery: Oaklawn racing opening day

"It's just racing for me," he said. "I don't think about opening day. It can be opening day or the last day, and it's still racing."

[IN PHOTOS: Opening day at Oaklawn Park]

Hartman and Burchell each had entrants in the first stakes race of the season, the $125,000 Fifth Season Stakes for horses 4-years-old-and-up that were racing 1 1/16 mile, as did trainer Brad Cox, whose thoughts on opening day took the middle ground.

"Right now, at 9:30 in the morning, it's just another day," he said. "The difference is, instead of going home and taking a nap and watching SportsCenter this afternoon, we have to go home and get ready for the races, but it's good to get the ball rolling."

The only thing trainers and jockeys at Oaklawn agreed on across the board was that they didn't want to wait any longer. On second thought, even Burchell leaned toward the consensus.

"I've spent four months getting these horses ready to run, so whenever it comes time to race, yes, I'm excited," he said.

It was the first opening day at Oaklawn for General Manager Wayne Smith, who was promoted to replace the retired Eric Jackson midway through last season. Smith said any nervousness he felt was caused by the weather.

Snow and freezing rain fell across much of Arkansas late Thursday night into Friday morning. At daybreak, there was a light coat of frozen precipitation across central Arkansas, including Hot Springs.

"We were worried about whether or not this was going to happen, and then the sun showed up," Smith said. "But I wasn't worried about anything else, and that's because of the people we have in place. Most of them have been here for years, and they put on a show for the fans that was second to none."

As for the Fifth Season, everyone seemed confident in the morning, hours before Sonneteer came from far off the pace to win by ¾ of a length at 30-1 over Hartman trainee Futile.

It was 26 degrees, and a stiff wind blew from the northwest as Cox discussed Dazzling Gem's credentials. The 5-year-old son of Misremembered was two Road-to-the-Kentucky-Derby points short of making the 2016 Derby for Cox and owner Steve Landers, a Little Rock car dealer. After a nine-month layoff, Dazzling Gem finished second by a head in the 1-mile and 70-yard Jeffrey A. Hawk Memorial Stakes at Remington Park on Dec. 17.

"He's doing well coming into the race, and we're super excited about him," Cox said. "We ran him at Remington thinking he would need the race, and it looked like he did. He came up a little short. Hopefully he rebounds today."

Hartman's entrant Futile, by Broken Vow and owned by Jackie Rojas and Chris Wilkins, started the race at 25-1.

Though Hartman expressed confidence in Futile, provided the horse stepped forward from previous performances, he joked about his shot to make it to the Fifth Season winner's circle as he stood in the early-morning warmth of his office.

"If we hit this one, you better bring a butterfly net, because I'll be flying all over the place," Hartman said. "I'll be as high as Donald Trump."

Futile came close. With jockey Rodney Prescott aboard, he followed Dan the Go to Man through the early running, took the lead near the half-mile pole -- 8 lengths ahead of Sonneteer in ninth -- and led by 2 lengths as the field turned for home.

"I thought we had him," Hartman said. "At the top the lane, he cleared off, and I thought, 'Whoa.' I grabbed my chest and said, 'Betty, I'm coming home.' ''

Hartman then watched as Sonneteer ran down the center of the track from 3 lengths back at the top of the stretch. A son of Midnight Lute and owned by Calumet Farm's Brad Kelley and trained by Keith Desormeaux, Sonneteer had finished fourth at Oaklawn in last season's Arkansas Derby and was making the most of his opening-day return.

Under rider C.J. McMahon, Sonneteer passed Futile with 50 yards to race and held on to win. Futile was second, ¾ lengths ahead of Far Right in third.

"When I took hold of him down the backside, he took off with me at the same time," McMahon said. "It was off to the races from there."

"Futile ran great," Prescott said. "Chris has done a great job with him."

No nets were required to capture Hartman after the race, but he was delighted by the result.

"That was great," he said. "This has been a good opening day."

Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun
A thoroughbred and a jockey leave the paddock area and head to the track for a race Friday at Oaklawn Park. An estimated crowd of 13,500 attended opening day of Oaklawn’s live-racing season.
Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun
C.J. McMahon celebrates after riding Sonneteer to victory in the Fifth Season Stakes on Friday at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs Sonneteer’s winning time was 1 minute, 45.40 seconds in the 1 1/16-mile race. For more photos, go to

Sports on 01/13/2018

Print Headline: Off to the races: No one rides as high as Sonneteer on big day

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