Happy Trails at Oaklawn

Like countless owners, Marshall Gramm has a race circled on the first Saturday in May. But it’s not the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports,” aka the Kentucky Derby.

Gramm’s affection is for a race that lasts approximately three minutes, a 1 3/4-mile event at Oaklawn Park with a history, albeit, esoteric, of its own. The “Trail’s End,” a starter-allowance marathon, is traditionally the final race each season at Oaklawn, the Hot Springs, AR, venue that opened in 1905. The 1 3/4-mile race debuted in 1972 and has been won the last three years by Ten Strike Racing, a highly successful racing syndicate founded in 2016 by Gramm and Arkansas native Clay Sanders, and trainer Bentley Combs.

“It means the world to me,” said Gramm, a noted handicapper and economics professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. “I set my calendar by it. Again, it’s hard to imagine ever being in a position to own like a Derby horse, even though we put together partnerships, and to be in a position to spend the kind of money to chase those kind of dreams. A Trail’s End horse, a guy like me, claim a horse for $10,000 and take a shot. It’s great.”

Marshall Gramm | Lucas Marquardt

Oaklawn senior vice president Eric Jackson said he believes the Trail’s End was the brainchild of the late W.T. “Bish” Bishop, an iconic figure at Keeneland before becoming Oaklawn’s general manager in 1978. A visionary, Bishop was instrumental in creating Oaklawn’s popular Racing Festival of the South in 1974. It featured a stakes race each day during the final week of the meeting.

Prior to the Trail’s End, Oaklawn had ended its season with a non-descript race, 1 mile and 70 yards, 1 1/16 miles or 1 1/8 miles, for lower-level claimers immediately following the Arkansas Derby. The 1 3/4-mile Trail’s End starts in the six-furlong chute and covers three turns, making it the longest race each season at Oaklawn.

“It’s without a doubt one of the neatest things about Oaklawn,” said Jackson, a Hot Springs native who became Oaklawn’s director of operations in 1979 and succeeded Bishop as general manager upon his death in 1987. “The only time we screwed it up is when we ran it as the first race. I think (racing secretary) Pat Pope had a shortage of horses. When we ran it as the first race, we heard about it from everybody in the grandstand.”

What gives the Trail’s End added zest is the buildup throughout the day and, ultimately, a sentimental twist at the end. The horses stop and face the crowd during the post parade as “Auld Lang Syne” is played by the bugler.

“That’s beautiful,” said jockey Martin Garcia, who has won the last two runnings of the Trail’s End. “That’s really beautiful because that’s like an appreciation to all those people that have come. That’s the last day and last race and kind of a thank you to them for being here this year with us. Believe it or not, all those people, the public, that means a lot to us because they’re coming to see and support us.”

Garcia guided favored Hellorhighwater (Ghostzapper) ($5.20) to a 10 1/2-length victory May 6. A 7-year-old gelding, Hellorhighwater covered 1 3/4 miles over a fast track in 3:00.10.

Garcia, Ten Strike and Combs also teamed to win the 2022 Trail’s End with Original Intent (Creative Cause). Original Intent won the 2021 Trail’s End under Ramon Vazquez.

Combs joined David Vance as the only trainers to win the Trail’s End three consecutive years. Vance captured the first three runnings (1972-1974), all for powerhouse Arkansas owner Dan Lasater.

Reflecting its popularity, the Trail’s End had a $125,000 purse the last two years, a colossal sum for the starter-allowance level. It has averaged 11.8 starters the last four years.

“This race right here, now don’t get me wrong, it’s almost like that treasure island for me at this point,” Combs, 35, jokingly, said.

“It’s a $125,000 starter ($10,000). Don’t tell people about this damn thing, although I’m sure Pat’s going around saying, ‘Tell everybody about this.’ I’ve got the bug. It’s bitten me. We’ve won it three years in a row. We’ve tied David Vance and, hopefully, we’re looking for the one to go ahead and beat David.”

Combs, who saddled his first winner in 2017 after coming up under trainer Dallas Stewart, said he initially believed the Trail’s End was just another race before being in the crosshairs of the pomp and circumstance for the first time in 2021.

“I had no idea,” Combs said. “I went in and saddled the horse and was kind of walking away and some lady looked over and said, ‘Have you ever seen this before? I said, ‘A post parade? Yeah, I’ve seen a post parade.’ She said, ‘No, no, no. The horses face the crowd and we do “Auld Lang Syne” and all this stuff.’ I didn’t know it was that big of deal and I kind of got worried that my horse was going to get loose, to be completely honest. Like I said, I had no idea. It’s kind of funny because it’s Marshall’s biggest thing and now he’s kind of got the bug bitten in me. It’s like, ‘Man, we’ve got to point towards this race.’ It’s really cool when everybody sings the song and the stuff like that.”

The 2023 Trail’s End was for 3-year-olds and up that had started for a claiming price of $10,000 or less in 2022-2023. Combs, on behalf of Ten Strike, claimed Hellorhighwater for $10,000 out of a fifth-place finish Nov. 3 at Churchill Downs.

Hellorhighwater won a co-meet-high four races this season at Oaklawn, helping Ten Strike finish third in the owner’s standings with 15 victories. Ten Strike’s biggest score came with Eyeing Clover (Lookin At Lucky), a one-time fringe Kentucky Derby candidate, in the $200,000 Hot Springs S. for 3-year-olds at 1 mile April 1. Eyeing Clover was a $55,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale purchase.

Ten Strike finished second with its two other Trail’s End starters to date–Far Out Kailee (Summer Bird) for trainer Randy Matthews in 2017 and Tiger Moon (Upstart) for trainer Lindsay Schultz in 2023. The Trail’s End purse was $55,000 in 2017. The May 6 exacta gave Ten Strike a sparkling 3-2-0 record in five Trail’s End starts, with purse earnings of $231,000.

“I’m not from the area and didn’t grow up like Clay and some of our other partners following the race,” Gramm said. “I remember learning about it, of course, watching the Arkansas Derby. It was always followed up by this mile and three-quarters race and I loved the tradition and pageantry. I think one of the most underrated moments in horse racing is when they go through the post parade and they turn to the crowd and play “Auld Lang Syne.” I quickly realized this is my kind of race. Claiming race, it’s a marathon race, it’s a dirt race. I should start looking for horses that sort of fit the profile of a Trail’s End horse.”

Oaklawn ran the closing-day Trail’s End in April, capping the Arkansas Derby Day program, until shifting its racing dates in 2019. A May close means the Trail’s End is now run on the heels of the Kentucky Derby. Gramm attended this year’s Kentucky Derby and said he watched Hellorhighwater’s victory from a home adjacent to Churchill Downs.

Ten Strike and Lasater, a three-time Eclipse Award winner, are the only owners to win the Trail’s End three consecutive times.

“It’s my favorite race out there,” Gramm said. “Obviously, I would aspire to win the Derby and stuff like that. I want to win the Trail’s End every year. I’m looking right now for a Trail’s End horse.”

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