01/14/2010 12:00AM

Oaklawn rises to new level

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Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
The entrance to Oaklawn Park's 90,000-square-foot casino area dedicated to gaming, simulcasting, dining, and live musical acts.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The decision of Oaklawn president Charles Cella to double the purse of the Arkansas Derby to $1 million in 2004 has achieved its objective. The race will be run as a Grade 1 for the first time in 21 years on April 10, and that is just some of the momentum Oaklawn has going for it entering its 54-date meet Friday.

The historic track is entering the new decade with a fresh identity as an entertainment complex. Last week, a $30 million expansion and renovation project on the south end of the grandstand was completed, giving Oaklawn a 90,000-square-foot casino area dedicated to gaming, simulcasting, dining, and live musical acts.

"I just don't think we can rest on our laurels," Cella said.

In some ways, this is no longer your father's Oaklawn. It's now a little bit of Las Vegas overlooking a 106-year-old racetrack that in recent years has been a stage for future classic winners Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Curlin, Rachel Alexandra, and Summer Bird.

"Our goal all along has been to use gaming to enhance racing," said Eric Jackson, general manager of Oaklawn. "We believe this will allow us to take racing to an even higher level here in Arkansas, and that's been the game plan since Day 1.

"As long as you have the compass pointing in the right direction, change can be very good."

These days, Oaklawn's purses are headed north. They are projected to average a record $300,000 to $320,000 a day this meet, with a third of that total coming from gaming, Jackson said.

Such a purse structure, with the $1 million Arkansas Derby as its centerpiece, has taken Oaklawn's racing program to new heights. That the derby is now a Grade 1 for the first time since Dansil's win in 1989 brings Cella's plan full circle.

"We're always trying to do something that shows our quality," Cella said. "At this time of the year, it's important, it seems to me, to have a strong 3-year-old program. That is a paramount goal. The natural thing was to increase that purse to $1 million. It certainly has worked."

Pat Pope, the longtime racing secretary at Oaklawn, said the Arkansas Derby's Grade 1 ranking packs a two-fold punch for horses that extends beyond the Triple Crown trail.

"Those that are looking to go on to the breeding shed later, it means a heck of a lot," he said.

This year, the Arkansas Derby, which is to be broadcast on NBC, will be the nation's lone million-dollar prep for the Kentucky Derby. It's also the annual climax to the racing season at Oaklawn, which builds through a series of 3-year-old preps: the $100,000 Smarty Jones on Monday, the Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest on Feb. 15, and the Grade 2, $300,000 Rebel on March 13.

In all, 30 stakes worth a cumulative $4.7 million will be held, starting with the $50,000 Dixie Belle for 3-year-old fillies on Friday. To be run at six furlongs, the race has drawn stakes winners Decelerator, who took the Grade 3 Debutante at Churchill in June; Rapid Racer, who accounted for the $50,000 Gowell at Turfway Park in December; and Shotgun Gulch, a two-time stakes winner this fall at Remington Park.

The Dixie Belle is the start of the local 3-year-old filly program, which culminates with the Grade 2 Fantasy. The Fantasy was won a year ago by Horse of the Year candidate Rachel Alexandra. The purse for the 2010 Fantasy has been increased from $250,000 to $300,000, and the April 2 stakes has been positioned to open the Racing Festival of the South, when at least one major stakes a day is run over the final week of the meet at Oaklawn.

Between now and then, there will be a lot of action to take in. And not just in the new casino area, which has enabled the track to grow from 500 gaming terminals to 875 player positions, counting spots at the electronic blackjack and poker tables. Last week, Oaklawn began accepting seating reservations for the races and its phone lines were jammed for hours on end.

"There's a lot of excitement," said Corey Nakatani, who has moved his tack here from Southern California. "It kind of reminds me of the Del Mar atmosphere. It's more of an event than the everyday grind of racing."