Oh Say said it from the beginning

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The name of the race made me think. Some Twitter chatter made me look. Yes I was there for the career debut of Oh Say, for whom Saturday’s $50,000 Oh Say Stakes at Delaware Park is named.

The bay horse was Thoroughbred royalty in the Mid-Atlantic, owned by Christiana Stable, trained by Henry Clark, by Hoist The Flag, out of Grade 1 winner Light Hearted who was by Cyane. Bred in Kentucky, Oh Say nonetheless represented Delaware (Christiana) and Maryland (Clark).

And by the noise, he knew it.

In the paddock for the fifth race of Sept. 5, 1981, the 3-year-old colt bellowed and hollered – like some kind of black stallion in a storybook. It was strange, eerie, alarming, a little frightening. And I was a 16-year-old kid. Imagine how the other horses felt. Intimidated I would guess. I don’t remember specifics, but Oh Say won that day. Of course he did.

In Delaware’s storied paddock, I stood a few stalls away with Smokum Scout who was – like Oh Say – making his career debut. That’s where the similarities ended.

Our horse finished seventh, but we were probably happy. He was big, bay, long-striding, strong-willed and destined for something else entirely. Purchased in part based on photos of a loose school at Arthur McCashin’s farm in Virginia, the son of West Coast Scout won over jumps later that year, and twice more the next season. He toiled for my father and owner Augustin Stable, switching back and forth from flat to jumps and finding various levels of success and failure.

In 1984, he delivered one of the most erratic winning performances in history (jump or flat) at Delaware Park. Bruce Wagner, now the starter at the Maryland tracks, rode him but the seven-pound apprentice was merely hanging on. The chart says they opened 20 lengths on the field, but that’s probably just an estimate. They won by 1 1/4 over a decent field for a $10,000 claimer. My father’s longtime friend and Delaware Park fixture Phil Goodwin was in the winner’s circle with us, just because he wanted to be part of something that looked so loopy.

Scout ran 12 times between May 1 and Oct. 20 that year, winning twice. The busy schedule was typical. He raced 54 times in his career, winning eight and earning just more than $50,000. Along the way, he developed allergies to pretty much everything – alfalfa hay, straw, oats, whatever. He’d break out in hives, everywhere. We fed him green pellets of some kind, bedded him on shavings, watched what he ate.

Assuming the Equibase history report is accurate, Scout ran nine times in 1985. He got claimed from us one night at Penn National and I regret not telling the people about his allergies. He never won again, and returned to Penn National after three years away from the races, for nine starts at age 10 in 1988.

Of course, at the other end of the racing spectrum, Oh Say kicked out of that Delaware Park debut to success if not quite greatness. He won seven times in an all-too-brief nine-start career – his first three at Delaware, Bowie and Fair Grounds in 1981. The streak came to an end in his 4-year-old debut, a third at Fair Grounds on the second day of 1982.

After a winter break, he won four in a row – Keeneland, Pimlico, Delaware, Delaware. The Pimlico victory came on the same day his year-younger stablemate Linkage (also by Hoist The Flag out of a Cyane mare) finished second in the Preakness. Oh Say won his race by 8 lengths, with Willie Shoemaker aboard. Shoemaker, who also rode Linkage, supposedly told Clark Oh Say was the better horse.

Oh Say’s only stakes win came in the 1982 Hannibal Handicap, and his career ended with a second to Sportin’ Life in the William du Pont Jr. Handicap in July. As a stallion, Oh Say stood at Windfields Farm in Chesapeake City, Md. and later at Shamrock Farm in Woodbine, Md. He died in 2002 at age 24.

Saturday’s stakes, for 3-year-olds at 6 furlongs, drew nine entrants. Like the race’s namesake, several hint at big things. Coup de Grace, owned by Delawarean Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farm, is a graded stakes winner. Debt Ceiling won four times as a 2-year-old. Maryland-bred It’s A Bang won twice last year, including the Maryland Million Nursery. Favorite Tale is 4-for-6 in his career – all this year. Classic Giacnroll won twice last year and placed in the Grade 2 Jerome this year. 

Who’s going to win? Just listen for noise in the paddock. Maybe one will tell you.