LITTLE ROCK — Uncomfortable endorsing a Canadian-based 3-year-old thoroughbred with the synthetic surface symbol beside each of his four races, trainer Josie Carroll made it easy.

The aforementioned capital A inside a baseball diamond-looking thingy is a red flag when a horse moves to a dirt surface like the one at Oaklawn Park. No problem, Carroll said. Ami’s Holiday has looked good galloping over the dirt training track at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, she said.

Sights set on Oaklawn’s proven series of prep races for the Triple Crown, Carroll is sending Ami’s Holiday to Hot Springs. Carroll knows a thing or two about winning headline races for 3-year-olds — twice, she has saddled the winner of the Queen’s Plate, the Kentucky Derby for Canadian breds.

The first time I called her in Toronto, she asked for a one-hour reprieve. Her husband was recovering from surgery and she needed the time to break up the crust of ice over the eight inches of snow on top of her car.

Normally, Carroll-trained horses run in New Orleans this time of year, but she has split her stable between Oaklawn and the Fairgrounds. Canadian-based Mark Casse is taking a similar approach with horses in Florida as usual and at Oaklawn for the first time since early in his career. The five-time winner of the Sovereign Award as Canada’s leading trainer, Casse entered Coastline in Monday’s $150,000 Smarty Jones.

Carroll didn’t mention Oaklawn’s purse structure, but Friday’s card included a feature race with a $56,000 purse, a maiden race for $55,000, and a couple of lesser races for $30,000. At the Fairgrounds, the feature was worth $46,000 with no other race more than $23,000.

The money is nice, but Oaklawn’s series for Triple Crown hopefuls is the target of trainers with 3-year-olds of potential. Ten times in the last 10 years, a horse from Oaklawn has won a Triple Crown race. Last year, Will Take Charge — expected to be named 3-year-old of the year Saturday night— won the Smarty Jones and the Rebel at Oaklawn.

Carroll has circled the $300,000 Southwest on Feb. 17 for the 3-year-old debut of Ami’s Holiday, adding, "you have to be flexible with these young horses."

She said Ami’s Holiday needed a reinvigorating month away from the races after finishing third in Canada. Ami’s Holiday won a maiden race in September, jumped into stakes company a month later, and won at 1 1-16 miles. "I thought he was a really nice horse begging to go two turns and the spot was there," Carroll said.

Winning, he banked 10 points toward qualifying for the Kentucky Derby. Last year, 20 points was good enough to get into the Derby.

Carroll tossed out the next race for Ami’s Holiday because he "got in a ton of trouble on the turn" and was too far back running against a speed biased track. In his last start of the year, the effort was better, but there was still traffic trouble. "Like a young person, he’s still learning," she said.

Like Carroll, trainer D. Wayne Lukas and William Gowan have the Southwest in mind for their hyped 3-year-olds.

Lukas’ Strong Mandate won a big race in New York and was third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. A four-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, Lukas plans to prepare the colt for Louisville by running in the Rebel on March 16 and the Arkansas Derby a month later.

Gowan’s Ride On Curlin won on opening weekend at Oaklawn.

With many of the proven runners waiting until next month, Coastline and up-and-comers can stockpile Derby points on Monday. Both the Smarty Jones and the Southwest are worth 10-4-2-1. The Rebel is 50-20-10-5 and the Arkansas Derby is twice that.


Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.