01/08/2014 3:38PM

Oaklawn Park: Good times rolling as meet begins

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Barbara D. Livingston
Oxbow, shown after his Preakness win, finished second to stablemate Will Take Charge in last year's Rebel at Oaklawn.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – These are Oaklawn Park’s glory days.

From Smarty Jones in 2004 to Oxbow last May, the 57-date meet that opens Friday has spawned eight recent Triple Crown-race winners. And because of horses like Afleet Alex, Curlin, Summer Bird, Rachel Alexandra, Lookin At Lucky, and Super Saver, this is arguably the track’s most significant era.

“Oaklawn’s been doing this 110 years . . . these are the best years right now,” said Eric Jackson, general manager of the track owned by the family of Charles Cella. “It’s been a remarkable 10- to 12-year run, and the future looks bright.”

Oaklawn will dole out more than $20 million in purses during the meet that concludes with the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 12. The stakes schedule is worth $6.1 million, with purses projected to average about $375,000 a card, Jackson said. Those figures are up from a respective $5.6 million and $350,000 a year ago.

“We’re excited about the purse distribution,” Jackson said. “It’s the biggest schedule we’ve ever had going into a season.”

Oaklawn has prospered from electronic gaming, and to accommodate flourishing business a $20 million expansion to the track’s gaming center is in the works. It will provide 20,000 additional square feet of gaming space, which translates to room for as many as 500 more player positions, Jackson said. There are currently 1,000 player positions at Oaklawn as part of a grandstand addition completed in late 2009. The new project is a two-part plan, Jackson said. Phase  2 will commence when the live race meet is over.

“We completed all the infrastructure for this project last summer,” he said, “so right after the Arkansas Derby contractors can jump on it and come out of the ground right away with bricks and mortar, the goal being to be finished right after Thanksgiving.”

As part of the infrastructure in place, patrons returning to town Friday will notice the main entrance to Oaklawn has moved about a block south on Central, to Woodlawn.

Patrons also will notice a slew of enhancements to the racing program. For the new season, Oaklawn has increased purses for 19 of its 31 stakes. The change means all open-company stakes will be worth a minimum of $100,000, up from last year’s $60,000.

“We’re quite pleased with that,” said Pat Pope, racing secretary at Oaklawn. “It’s something we’d been looking at doing and wanted to do for a while.”

As part of the stakes increases, the Azeri and Razorback have each been boosted in value from $150,000 to $200,000, and they will be packed on the Rebel card March 15 to create a new preview card for the Racing Festival of the South, when Oaklawn runs at least one major stakes a day over the final week of its meet. The festival opens April 5 this year, with the Grade 3, $400,000 Fantasy for 3-year-old fillies. It will conclude with the Arkansas Derby, which offers its winner 100 points toward Kentucky Derby preference. Each of the local steps to the Arkansas Derby – the $150,000 Smarty Jones on Jan. 20; the Grade 3, $300,000 Southwest on Feb. 17; and the Grade 2, $600,000 Rebel on March 15 – offer varying Kentucky Derby point totals on the system administered by Churchill Downs.

Oaklawn’s overnight racing is led by maiden special weight races worth a record $55,000. In 2007, the same races were worth $34,000.

“It’s a heck of a jump,” said Pope, noting the only maiden races at this time of year worth more are at Aqueduct.

Pope said he had requests for more than 2,800 stalls, up from a year ago. The track can house 1,540 horses. The stable area house its strongest group of horsemen in years. Mark Casse, a multiple Sovereign Award winner in Canada, has a division here for the first time in decades. Other new outfits are Rusty Arnold, Jeff Bonde, Josie Carroll, Kellyn Gorder, Paul Holthus, Garry Simms, and Jack Van Berg.

“You’ve got about 10 pretty good new stables,” longtime Oaklawn trainer Gary Hartlage said. “It will help some of the better races fill.”

Oaklawn has expanded its wagering format for the meet, with superfectas to be available on every race eligible, said Bobby Geiger, director of gaming and wagering for Oaklawn. Last meet, there were three to four superfectas each card. The bet has a 10-cent minimum. In other changes, Oaklawn will have a rolling pick three starting with the second race this meet, and it also will introduce an early 50-cent pick four, also starting on the second race, Geiger said.

Oaklawn’s signal will have broad exposure in 2014. In addition to being available on HRTV and TVG, wagering on Oaklawn will be available this season on DRF Bets. The track also has launched an account-wagering service for Arkansas residents, at OaklawnAnywhere.com.

First post Friday is 1:05 p.m. Central, with forecasters calling for highs in the mid-50s.