01/12/2011 3:10PM

Oaklawn Park meet has big shoes to fill

Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO
Havre de Grace (right), shown beating Blind Luck in the Grade 2 Cotillion, will be based at Oaklawn this winter with Larry Jones.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark.– Oaklawn Park has one heck of an act to follow when it opens its 56-date meet on Friday.

The track is coming off a 2010 season in which the winners of two legs of the Triple Crown prepped at Oaklawn. Super Saver took the Kentucky Derby one start after being edged by Line of David in the first Grade 1 running of the Arkansas Derby in 20 years. Lookin At Lucky, meanwhile, launched his Preakness-winning season in the Rebel.

Blind Luck showed up, too, blitzing her rivals in the Fantasy before accounting for the Kentucky Oaks. And then there was Zenyatta. She capped Oaklawn’s whirlwind season by winning her 16th consecutive race in the closing-weekend Apple Blossom. A crowd of 44,973 patrons turned out to watch the charismatic mare, who is now a finalist for Horse of the Year.

“How do you top the Zenyatta show?” mused Pat Pope, the racing secretary at Oaklawn. “I don’t know what you can do, but I know we’re trying.”

Pope’s hopes for an encore season lie with a projected purse structure of $325,000 a day, and a proven stakes schedule that has undergone some subtle changes. There is also a strong collection of trainers and jockeys on hand, he said, including a bevy of new faces sure to keep the racing fresh and competitive. Larry Jones is among them, as he has come out of retirement to train a stable that includes Grade 2 winner Havre de Grace and Grade 1 winner No Such Word.

Friday’s nine-race card drew 98 entries despite a winter blast earlier this week that prevented training for three straight days, from Monday to Wednesday. The surface was still partially covered with snow Wednesday afternoon with temperatures expected to dip below freezing again at night. The forecast for Friday is for sunny skies and a high of 47 degrees.

Oaklawn will begin the meet with the highest purse distribution in its history.

“Last year, we ended up right at $325,000 a day, and I expect this year to be around that figure,” said Eric Jackson, the general manager of Oaklawn. “We’re starting out higher than we’ve ever started out.”

Oaklawn’s maiden special weight races will be worth $36,000, while some allowance purses will hit $44,000. The minimum purse will be $15,200, available for the track’s lowest claiming level of $5,000.

“The last five years the bottom purse has gone from $11,000 to $15,200 and growing,” said Pope.

In about that same period, Oaklawn’s profile has risen with Triple Crown race winners Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Summer Bird and Rachel Alexandra wintering at the track as 3-year-olds. And that group doesn’t even include two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, who shipped in to win the 2007 Arkansas Derby.

Those nationally prominent runners have created an annual anticipation for the racing product, while purses have spiked from season to season due to a burgeoning gaming operation. Oaklawn expanded its gaming area last meet, with the opening of a $30 million, 90,000 square foot addition to the grandstand that enabled the track to go from 500 electronic gaming terminals to more than 800 player positions. The gaming revenues now account for a third of the purse structure at Oaklawn, and have breathed new life into the more than 100-year-old facility owned by Charles Cella.

“The last five years have been wonderful,” Jackson said.

“When you put it in the context of the 1990s, and getting beat up badly [by gaming in surrounding states], some people thought we were down for the count. It’s been a terrific rebound.”

Oaklawn will offer 32 stakes worth $4.6 million this meet, a program that will be led by the Grade 1, $1  million Arkansas Derby on closing day, April 16. The track’s other Grade 1 race, the $500,000 Apple Blossom will be run the day before, on April 15.

Traditionally, the Apple Blossom has opened the Racing Festival of the South, a series of major stakes that are run over the final week of the meet. But last year it was pushed back a week in an attempt to bring Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta together for the first time. And while the matchup did not end up happening, the race’s different placement helped Oaklawn experience one of its biggest closing weekends ever, with 106,504 patrons turning out to watch the back-to-back Grade 1s on Friday and Saturday.

Oaklawn has returned the Apple Blossom to handicap status after running it as a stakes a year ago. In addition, its distance has reverted back to a mile and a sixteenth after being run at a mile and an eighth in 2010. In other changes to the stakes schedule, the purse of the Grade  2 Oaklawn Handicap on April 9 has been reduced from $500,000 to $350,000.

“We felt we could make better use of those dollars in the overnight purses, as well as some of the stakes races,” said David Longinotti, the assistant general manager for racing at Oaklawn.

Oaklawn’s series for older horses will begin three weeks earlier this year, with the $75,000 Fifth Season being moved from April to Friday’s opener. Other local preps for the Oaklawn Handicap are the $100,000 Essex on Feb. 5 and the Grade 3, $100,000 Razorback on March 12.

“I’m real pleased I have the same four-race series for older horses, and now, they’re strategically placed,” Pope said.

Win Willy, runner-up to Duke of Mischief in last year’s Oaklawn Handicap and most recently fifth in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 26, is the horse to beat in the mile and a sixteenth Fifth Season.

It is fitting Fifth Season will be run opening day, as it is named for the Oaklawn meet. Locals are fond of noting that there are actually five seasons each year in Arkansas: winter, spring, summer, fall, and Oaklawn.

The new season blows in at 1 p.m. Central.