01/09/2013 2:56PM

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.

Me More than 1 year ago
Oaklawn is a rip-off period! First off it isnt a casino, it's a gaming center...RIGHT! It does the same thing casino's do, take your money.but the difference is at casino's a percentage rating is in place. Not at Oaklawn theres some of the difference. They do promotions like casinos do but without the hotel freebies because they dont have one but I understand plans are in work for one. Arkansas needs to go ahead & permit casinos like Harrah's to come in. Gaming center name is a legal way to get around it being a casino & the fact that it's gaming center it does not have to pay the casino type percentages. You will see more wins after the horse races is over because slots are not paying off because it pays for the horse racing purse. It will suck your money down super fast but know that your making some jockey & horse owner very happy. LOL!
Jimee63 More than 1 year ago
Somebody needs to say this. Casino profits should not be used to supplement racing purses. There is no logical connection between the two. Casino patrons deserve to get a larger return on their gambling. Racing has "run" itself into the ground. Having been in the game, I can verify what a dishonest game it is. There is "something" going on in at least half the races at every track in the country. Canada has the right idea!
Flint King More than 1 year ago
Shut up your ignorance. Mr cella has chosen to spend the profits on his casino on his race track.thats his right and is hurting no one
ron More than 1 year ago
just guessing every time you lose, the jockey thru the race, helt the horse back,wouldnt use his whip enough.at every track theres always that person thats the bast handicaper on earth and every time they lose its always to put the blame on something else.it takes a lot to be a good horse player,for slot players you dont even have to know how to read. just you your skill and drop a coin in the slot.
ATOWN WHAT More than 1 year ago
"Casino patrons deserve to get a larger return on their gambling." What are you talking about? Casinos don't increase the money slot machines pump out if they make more profit. Casinos don't give you a 5% bonus on your blackjack bets if they have a record year. Casinos use their profits to ATTRACT MORE GAMBLERS. They do this by adding amenities, handing out comps, and increasing entertainment. Thus, there is a total, complete, LOGICAL connection between increasing racing purses and profits from casinos. Bigger purses mean better races, more spectators, and more bets. That means MORE PROFITS for the track. If a "racino" would rather use some of its slot revenue to increase the handle at its track, it obviously sees this as a good idea from a revenue standpoint.
ron More than 1 year ago
i never have been there but i like a place thats clean,good employees,info people that can direct you where to go.also if they are so clean why dont they do away with the daily opening card part where they got those two guys smoking cigars.arnt they saying come out with your cigars and make everyone else suffer? nothing else worse for messing up your day when they light up that cigar close to you.this is not the 50,s.
kjoe More than 1 year ago
Had the pleasure of going to OP several times and they really do it right. Good cards, you can eat off the floor the place is clean and shiny, lots of open windows happy friendly faces.....a place on the rise. Living in Kentucky racing is in steep decline here. TP is broke and dirty. Even KEE is getting PID and FG horses and shorter fields thanks to the synthetic.....sad to see.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Glad to get your recommendation for Oaklawn. Unfortunately I agree on TP. Always hoped that Turfway would get the money to clean and remodel. I like the track/racing there. I will try to get to Oaklawn now that you have described it so nice. Thanks. RD btr....we need more comments/reviews of various tracks especially The good ones!
Marvin Friedman More than 1 year ago
same promises made by the operators of every track that wants slots. Very few instances of actual lasting benefit as far as better stock and fuller fields check the entries at delpark parks pennnash....same6 horse fields where 2 can run and 4 cant walk be careful what u wish for
Cleon Silence More than 1 year ago
well Mr Friedman, i am not aware or have the benefit of your knowledge or experience but i don't agree with your assessment of today's thoroughbred racing and i wonder if you have sour grapes to release against this industry. As for an individual track or owners/management that may be a different story but if i read your letter correctly that is not what you discussed. i believe if you read the statistics at Oak lawn the average field is more like between 8 and 9 horses per race and i live here in Hot Springs and applaud the efforts of the owner and management in their attempt to draw the better trainers and horses and though i may not agree with all of their decisions i am not in a position to criticize.
Damien Thorne More than 1 year ago
Nice work tvg in losing that coverage. Keep those 5 horse fields from golden gate coming they are fun to watch.
Gary Cosentino More than 1 year ago
I commend Oaklawn on incorporating their racino money toward the purses. this will bring in better trainers and better racing. Can someone please tell the crooked politicians in illinois to look at the Oaklawn model. Get er done!
rvraynmary More than 1 year ago
What a great report on how casino gambling can augment purses for horse racing. Looks as if Oaklawn is getting to be major league. stuckinarizona