01/11/2017 4:50PM

New meet features passing of torch, record purses

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – The Oaklawn Park meet that opens Friday will again be defined by the track’s outstanding 3-year-old program, rising purse structure, large crowds, and rabid claiming activity. But it also will be a meet of transition.

Eric Jackson, Oaklawn’s general manager since 1987 who along with track owner Charles Cella has guided Oaklawn through its most significant growth period, will at some point this season hand the baton to Wayne Smith. Oaklawn also will have a new voice. Vic Stauffer is set to become just the sixth announcer in the 113-year history of the track.

Oaklawn is racing 57 days through April 15, when the season ends with the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby, won last year by eventual Belmont Stakes hero Creator.

Jackson, 66, is leaving his post with a bang. Purses are projected to average more than $500,000 per program. A second jumbo screen has been added to the infield. A new tote system is in place, allowing for 14 betting interests. And there are 100 new boxes in the grandstand in what Jackson said is the first such addition since the 1970s.

Revenues from an ontrack gaming center that was expanded in January 2015 have helped drive the purse structure and improvements. Jackson has been at the forefront of such efforts. He created Instant Racing, an electronic parimutuel game that was introduced at Oaklawn in 2000, and he’s since overseen the addition of gaming at the track, to the tune of 1,500 player positions.

“I think our purse distribution last year was $26 or $27 million,” Jackson said. “I know [director of racing] David Longinotti is projecting around $30 million for this year, obviously depending on the weather, depending on business. It’s a very aggressive schedule he has put together going into this season. Maidens start at $72,000. Ten years ago, maidens were half that. Our purses have doubled in the last 10 years.”

Jackson added that over the last 16 years purses have gone up every meet. The trend has led to a stakes schedule worth a record $8.2 million. The road to the Arkansas Derby starts Monday with the $150,000 Smarty Jones. It continues with the Grade 3, $500,000 Southwest on Feb. 20 and the Grade 2, $900,000 Rebel on March 18.

“It’s been a marvelous run,” Jackson said. “You just don’t get the Curlins, Zenyattas, and American Pharoahs if you don’t have that purse schedule.”

Highlights of the 31-race stakes program also include the Grade 1, $600,000 Apple Blossom, one of the main events during the Racing Festival of the South, which features a series of major stakes over the final week of the meet. The Apple Blossom will share an April 14 card with the Grade 3, $400,000 Fantasy for 3-year-old fillies. The Arkansas Derby will be supported by three stakes, including the Grade 2, $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap.

The local preps for the Oaklawn Handicap have received notable upgrades. The Grade 3 Razorback Handicap, which will now share a card with the Southwest, has had its purse increased from $350,000 to $500,000. In addition, the value of the Essex Handicap has been boosted from $100,000 to $250,000 and it will be part of the Rebel program.

The riches have drawn familiar faces, including last year’s leading owner, Danny Caldwell; trainer, Steve Asmussen; and jockey, Ricardo Santana Jr. Pat Pope, the longtime racing secretary, also had a new barn to fill this year, with one having been constructed during the offseason.

The wagering format will include a new pick five on the last five races every day, with no carryover, according to Bobby Geiger, director of gaming and wagering for Oaklawn. A new Show Bet Bonus caters to ontrack players. It reduces the takeout for show bets to 10 percent for ontrack players, Geiger said. The idea, Jackson said, is to appeal to those new to racing by increasing their payouts on show bets.

Jackson first joined Oaklawn in 1979 as director of operations, and in 1994 he became a member of the track’s board of directors. He will continue his affiliation with Oaklawn through special projects. Smith, the current assistant general manager, has held prominent positions with Caesars Entertainment and Empire City Racing and Gaming.

“It’s been a terrifically satisfying run here at Oaklawn,” Jackson said. “Like the Cella family and the rest of the staff, I could not be prouder about what we’ve accomplished at Oaklawn and what we’ve accomplished in American racing.”