09/30/2003 11:00PM

Oaklawn offering $5M bonus


Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., will go all out for its 100th anniversary next year by offering a $5 million "Centennial Bonus" to any 3-year-old who can sweep its Rebel Stakes, the Arkansas Derby, which has been doubled in value to $1 million, and the Kentucky Derby.

The bonus is the richest in racing alongside the $5 million Visa Triple Crown Bonus.

The purse increase of the Arkansas Derby makes the 1 1/8-mile race, to be run April 10, one of only two $1 million Kentucky Derby preps in North America. The other is the Grade 1 Florida Derby on March 13.

The Arkansas Derby, which was run as a Grade 2 in 2003, will be the first $1 million race at Oaklawn. It will also be the richest of 26 stakes worth $4 million during the meet, which will run 55 days from Jan. 23 through April 10.

"The real reason for all of this is to attract the best 3-year-olds in America as sort of a payback to our patrons," said Oaklawn president Charles Cella, who announced the bonus and purse increase at a news conference in Little Rock, Ark., on Wednesday.

Both changes were his idea.

The bonus will be underwritten by either an insurance policy or Cella, while the funds for the $500,000 increase to the Arkansas Derby will come from a special marketing-events account set up for the 100th year anniversary celebration at Oaklawn. As of now, the changes are in effect only for 2004.

The purse for the Rebel and Southwest stakes were also increased for 2004, and those adjustments will come from the purse accounts at Oaklawn, "based on an increase in simulcast business," said Cella.

The Rebel, a 1 1/16-mile race to be run March 20, has been increased in value from to $200,000 from $125,000 a year ago, while the Southwest, which is the first two-turn stakes of the meet for 3-year-olds Feb. 28, was boosted from $75,000 to $100,000.

Oaklawn's annual Racing Festival of the South will begin with two stakes on April 3: the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom, which has been won the last two years by Azeri, and the $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap, a Grade 2 that this year was won by Medaglia d'Oro.

The Festival will feature at least one stakes a day from April 3 through the end of the meet. Other top races during the six-day run include the $150,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap on April 8, and the $200,000 Fantasy for 3-year-old fillies April 9.

On the Arkansas Derby Day card, which this year drew 61,752 patrons, the $75,000 Northern Spur Breeders' Cup for 3-year-olds, and the $75,000 Instant Racing Breeders' Cup for 3-year-old fillies, will again support the big race, which was won by Sir Cherokee in 2003.

A special early-bird nomination for the 2004 Rebel and Arkansas Derby has been established. A fee of $300 due Feb. 14 will make horses eligible for both races. The regular nomination date for the Rebel is March 12.

Sunny's Halo is the only horse to win the Rebel, Arkansas Derby, and Kentucky Derby. He accomplished that in 1983. There was no bonus in place at the time, but in 1987 Oaklawn did offer a $1 million bonus to the horse who could win the Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby, but it was not cashed after Demons Begone failed to win the Kentucky Derby.

In addition to Sunny's Halo and Demons Begone, two other horses have won both the Rebel and Arkansas Derby: Pine Bluff and Victory Gallop.