Mary RampelliniDec 01, 2021
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Oaklawn before Christmas?
Oaklawn Park will have its earliest opening in the track’s 118-year-old history on Friday, when it launches an expanded 66-date meet. The season will run through May 8.
For the more than five-month stand, Oaklawn is mostly racing Friday through Sunday with the idea of making every weekend feel like, well, Christmas.
“The Triple Crown events, the Breeders’ Cup – those are the best events in racing,” Oaklawn president Lou Cella said. “They’re just for one weekend. There’s a lot of hoopla and excitement, but it’s for one weekend.
“What we’re trying to strive for at Oaklawn is to bring that level of excitement – we’ll never get to a Kentucky Derby or Breeders’ Cup – for every single weekend that we race. Really, for the folks who can’t afford, or don’t have the ability, to go to those great, super-events, we want to put on a show that’s special, and special to racing.”
The schedule shift comes on the heels of the opening of a trackside hotel, spa, and events center to complement a robust casino and sports-betting operation, and an established racing program.
With those pillars in place, the Oaklawn experience has been upgraded across the board, from the placement of its Triple Crown preps, to reimagined eating establishments, to a redesigned infield with fountains that burst with color some 35 feet into the air.
The infield – which has three new concession buildings – could open as early as February, Cella said.
“We feel that this formula of bringing a really nice hotel, food and beverage, great racing, super-high purses, and entertainment all into one package is the new way of racing to succeed,” he said.
Anticipation for the new season is palpable.
Cella said the hotel is booked for the month of December, with the track keeping a few rooms in its “hip pocket” for connections coming in for stakes events. The record $12.3 million stakes schedule consists of 36 races, none richer than the $1.25 million Arkansas Derby on April 2.
The 1 1/8-mile race, previously worth $1 million, has been repositioned five weeks ahead of the Kentucky Derby in a move that changes the complexion of the Triple Crown trail. The dates switch also results in a domino effect on Oaklawn’s 3-year-old program as the track’s other Kentucky Derby points races have all been moved up on the calendar. The Smarty Jones – boosted to $250,000 in value from $150,000 – will be held Jan. 1. The Grade 3, $750,000 Southwest is Jan. 29, and the Grade 2, $1 million Rebel is Feb. 26.
“In our humble opinion, the Arkansas Derby has been the premier event leading to the Triple Crown,” Oaklawn racing secretary Pat Pope said. “Trainers wanted a little more time, so we’re going five weeks out, which is a major change from the traditional three weeks out.
“The 3-year-old fillies will follow suit, too, with the Fantasy on the same day as the Arkansas Derby, the Honeybee on the same day as the Rebel. They’re all earlier. We did not change distances.”
Oaklawn’s purses are projected to average $700,000 per card, Cella said. Pope said the minimum purse at the meet will be $25,000, while allowance offerings will start at $100,000. The purse for a maiden special weight is $84,000, far north of the $34,000 in 2009 and $53,000 in 2013.
Pope said more than 100 individual trainers have been granted stalls. The ranks include Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who is shooting for a record-breaking 12th title at Oaklawn.
“Of those 100-plus trainers, right around 40 percent have chosen the Arkansas-Kentucky circuit,” Pope said.
The riding colony includes perennial leader Ricardo Santana Jr., Hall of Famer Calvin Borel, David Cohen, Martin Garcia, and Florent Geroux. Later in the season, Joel Rosario is scheduled to ride at Oakawn.
As for the stakes schedule, it reaches fever pitch in April.
“April has turned into the Racing Festival of the South,” Pope said. “It’s no longer a week. It’s no longer two weeks. It’s celebrated the whole month. We’re trying to bring in some of the best Thoroughbreds in the country for patrons to come and watch.”
Aside from the Arkansas Derby and $600,000 Fantasy, other major races during the month include a pair of $1 million stakes on April 23 – the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap and Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap. The Grade 3, $500,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap will be showcased on its own card April 16.
First post has been moved up to 12:30 p.m. Central daily, with the exception of certain dates, Pope said. There is a special Monday card Feb. 21, while there will be no racing Dec. 24-26 in observance of Christmas and on April 17 in observance of Easter.
Cella, who represents the fourth generation of his family to helm Oaklawn, will be closely monitoring the reception to the track’s new approach.
“By the way, if December does not work and horses don’t show up and fans don’t show up and it’s not well-received, we can always go back to the traditional schedule,” he said. “That’s the beauty of being flexible.
“So, we’ll see if racing fans embrace it. We’ll find out.”
If it’s a hit, Oaklawn could regularly ring in the Christmas season.