The Trail’s End

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Traditions are on hold everywhere.

We can all blame the coronavirus pandemic for that, the outbreak’s insidious reach extending into every corner of the world, killing more than 60,000 in the United States and affecting every way of life. Everything feels on hold, canceled, postponed or operating in some bizarro way no one could have imagined just three months ago when the Kansas City Chiefs topped the San Francisco 49ers to win the Super Bowl. Everyone knows this of course.

But what did your Easter look like?

Drive through church, worship via Zoom? Brunch with those you’re holed up with, or perhaps even solo because you’re in self-quarantine? Easter Dinner the same way? A walk around the neighborhood – for the umpteenth time since stay-at-home orders or isolation suggestions went into effect in March? Yeah, we can relate. Who can’t?

One tradition that might not be altered comes Saturday, after the second of two divisions of the Arkansas Derby is complete and following a stretch of three consecutive graded stakes on Saturday’s loaded Oaklawn Park card.

The Trail’s End always ends the meet in Hot Springs and it’s slated to end it again Saturday, with a twist.

The $50,000 starter allowance at 1 3/4 miles drew a dozen entrants, including two-time defending champ The Rouge Diesel, and goes as the 14th race at 7:14 p.m. local time. The twist comes in what happens before the race, during the post parade.

Every year before the Trail’s End and with the horses on the track, Oaklawn’s bugler belts out Auld Lang Syne. The horses don’t parade while the song goes – like they do in say, the Kentucky Derby for My Old Kentucky Home – but instead stand and face the crowd.

“It’s how we say goodbye to the fans,” said trainer Ron Moquett. “The horses . . . they stand there while the fans sing the song, too. They just look at the crowd and the crowd always freaks out. It’s right after the Derby. It’s a tradition, and basically the horsemen’s way of saying, ‘We’ll be back.’ They love us here. It’s crazy.”

Oaklawn’s winter-spring meet continued in the midst of the pandemic – Arkansas ranks toward the bottom of all states affected by coronavirus – but limited its live cards to essential personnel and no fans in mid-March. The track’s casino is closed, too, but the Racing Festival of the South rolls on. Count the Trail’s End in the festival.

Jennifer Hoyt, Oaklawn’s media relations manager, said that even though the track’s bugler was among those laid off due to the economic crunch of the crisis the song would still be piped in for those watching via simulcast.

“All of our fans will still be watching, just through TV,” Hoyt said. “It’s usually quite a thing. The crowds wait for it and sing along. It’s a tradition. We really stick to tradition here. Mr. (Charles) Cella started giving out Arkansas Derby ties and we are continuing that. Everybody in the race will get a Derby tie.

“With the Trail’s End a lot of times I’ll be back in my office transcribing notes and working on the Arkansas Derby and I’ll hear it. You always stop. It kind of gives you goosebumps.”

Liane Crossley, a former colleague who worked in the Oaklawn publicity staff for Oaklawn’s longtime legendary announcer Terry Wallace in the 1980s, can relate to Hoyt’s pause at the big moment.

“I even remember there was an Oompah Band that played from the infield on Arkansas Derby Day,” said Crossley, now a publicist and turf writer living in Lexington. “They’d come onto the track, lederhosen and everything. They’d come on track before the last race. They’d play Auld Lang Syne while the horses were in the post parade. During the nine years I was there . . . even if I was in the middle of something I’d say, ‘Wait, wait, the horses are on the track for the Trail’s End.’ I always really enjoyed that. That’s how I remember it.”

Most everyone remembers it that way, and they’re all hopeful for a return to its former rendition come 2021.

Moquett doesn’t have a runner in the 2020 field topped by last-out winner Carlos Sixes, Magic Vow and Dangerfield. The trainer won it in 2007 with Humble Chris, a then 6-year-old Arkansas-bred gelding by Forever Dancer for Bowman Couch Racing.

“He was my marathon champion,” Moquett said. “An Arkansas-bred that just kicked their ass. For a mile-and-a-half he was a bad boy.

“It’s the kind of race you want to be in and be there for. It doesn’t matter, when we ran second to American Pharoah in the Arkansas Derby I wanted to be there when they did the Trail’s End. It’s kind of like Oaks Day to Louisville, the locals’ day, a way of saying goodbye. This year will be a little strange, the first time that the horses are not going to face any crowd . . . I’m sure they’ll play the song, I just don’t know what it’s going to be like to be standing there with the horses facing the grandstand and nobody’s in it.”