01/09/2013 3:56PM

Oaklawn Park: Gaming revenue boosts purses to a record $350,000 a day

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Barbara D. Livingston
Thirteen of Oaklawn Park's 32 stakes have had their purses raised for this season, including the Grade 2, $600,000 Rebel for 3-year-olds.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Oaklawn Park has budgeted a record $20 million in purses for its 56-date meet that opens Friday. That’s up from about $18 million a year ago, and the riches have lured more than a dozen new trainers to the mountain top resort town of Hot Springs. There also are more than a dozen new jockeys settled in at Oaklawn.

The track’s status has risen sharply in the last decade along with its purse structure. The stakes program is now worth a record $5.7  million, with increases having been made to 13 of the meet’s 32 stakes. Of the total stakes budget, more than $2 million is dedicated to a four-race series for 3-year-olds that is topped by the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby on the April 13 closing-day card. Overnight racing, meanwhile, will feature maiden special weights worth $53,000, up from $40,000 a year ago. In all, purses are projected to average $350,000 to $370,000 a day, according to Eric Jackson, Oaklawn’s general manager.

“This is a huge statement on the purse side this year,” Jackson said. “A good gaming season has contributed to a purse product north of $20 million. I think last year gaming accounted for 40 percent of all purses. This year, it will be closer to 50 percent. It’s a critical component and a primary reason we’re starting out with maiden special weights higher than $50,000.”

Oaklawn’s gaming center features 900 player positions in a 60,000-square-foot attachment to the grandstand that was completed in 2010. The casino features video poker, electronic blackjack, and Instant Racing.

Dale Romans, an Eclipse Award finalist for champion trainer of 2012; Eoin Harty, a mainstay in Southern California; and Al Stall Jr., who sent out Blame to win the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic over Zenyatta; have noticed the upward trend in purses and have sent divisions to town for the first time. The purses also have brought in jockeys Robby Albarado, Rosemary Homeister Jr., and Victor Lebron to take on Cliff Berry, who has won the last two riding titles.

D. Wayne Lukas, among the regulars in a stable area led by defending training champ Steve Asmussen, said he believes Oaklawn might even up the ante further during the course of the season.

“I think they’re in a position here to do some things that might be an eye-opener,” Lukas said. “For years, this was considered just that great little meet in Arkansas. Now, suddenly, it’s stepped up to where it’s holding it’s own against Gulfstream Park and the Fair Grounds. I really anticipate the purses going up as the meet goes along. There aren’t many [empty] seats in that gaming building.”

On the racetrack, Oaklawn’s one-mile oval is waiting to cradle the stride of the next Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Curlin, or Rachel Alexandra. In order to keep drawing classic winners, Oaklawn, under the direction of owner Charles Cella, has once again strengthened its already powerful program for 3-year-olds. Both the $150,000 Smarty Jones on Jan.  21 and the Grade 3, $300,000 Southwest on Feb. 18 have been increased by $50,000. The Grade 2 Rebel has received a $100,000 bump for its March 16 running, making the 1 1/16-mile race worth $600,000.

In other changes, Oaklawn has lengthened the distance of the Southwest from a mile to 1 1/16 miles. The race will now end at the regular finish line rather than the auxiliary finish line at the sixteenth pole. The change was made at the request of horsemen, said Pat Pope, Oaklawn’s racing secretary.

“Trainers came to us, and many others, and said, ‘We really want to start stretching our horses out and see how legit they are,’ ” Pope said. “And we wanted people to develop horses, and get them to relax and get the distance.”

Each of the races in Oaklawn’s series will offer points on the new Kentucky Derby system governing starting preference if the race is oversubscribed. The Arkansas Derby is worth 100 points to the winner, the Rebel, 50, and the Smarty Jones and Southwest, 10 each. With the new system awarding points through fourth place, there are 289 total points available between the four races. David Longinotti, assistant general manager for racing at Oaklawn, noted that Oaklawn Park is offering the same number of 3-year-old points as Santa Anita.

Oaklawn’s stakes calendar also includes the Grade 3, $400,000 Fantasy, which opens the four-day Racing Festival of the South on April 10. Its purse has been raised by $100,000, as has the value of the Oaklawn Handicap, a Grade 2 race that will be worth $500,000 when it shares a card with the Arkansas Derby. Another major stakes in the festival, which groups eight stakes over the final week of the meet, is the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom on April 12.

In new policies, the Arkansas Racing Commission for the first time is mandating pre-race veterinary examinations. The rule was put into place to keep the state in step with the Racing Commissioners International model rules, said Ron Oliver, executive director for the commission. Oaklawn has been compiling an injury database since last summer, and the information will be available to the commission veterinarians examining horses. In other policies, the commission has lowered the allowable level of the anti-inflammatory phenylbutazone, or bute, in a horse’s system.

Friday’s racing starts at 1 p.m. Central and is highlighted by the $75,000 Fifth Season for older horses. Calvin Borel, at 4,999 career wins, had a mount in that race and several others on the card but will not be riding after being diagnosed with a fractured bone in his left wrist on Tuesday.

The season opener is expected to be run under partly cloudy skies, with forecasters calling for temperatures in the high 60s. Oaklawn’s races will be available this meet on HRTV.