01/11/2012 4:19PM

Oaklawn Park: New voice, flashier stakes schedule as meet opens

Barbara D. Livingston
Oaklawn Park will open its 56-date meet Friday.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Oaklawn Park opens its 56-date meet Friday with some new wrinkles aimed at keeping the 108-year-old track fresh and its racing relevant. The stakes schedule is glitzier. Tweaks have been made to the wagering format. New technology enables ontrack fans to bet from their smart phones, and offtrack patrons will notice a different graphics package surrounding the simulcast signal.

But there is one change that will trump all others.

“The big ‘new’ is not to their eye, but to their ear,” said Eric Jackson, general manager of Oaklawn. “They’ll hear for the first time in a couple of generations a new track announcer.”

Frank Mirahmadi will take over the mike Friday from Terry Wallace, who announced his retirement in June after more than 37 years of calling races in Hot Springs. Wallace, who is to be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in February, will now serve as a full-time ambassador for Oaklawn.

Mirahmadi, 44, comes to Hot Springs from California. In the summer, he serves as the voice of the Northern California fair circuit. Mirahmadi also is an on-air analyst for the horse racing network TVG. He called his first race in 1992, at Hollywood Park, and has been a track announcer for Hialeah and Louisiana Downs.

Forecasters are calling for sunny skies and a high of 50 degrees for Friday, ideal conditions to usher in a meet that houses one of the best 3-year-old programs in North America in addition to a season-ending stakes-bonanza known as the Racing Festival of the South. A year ago, Mother Nature froze out the opener.

“The weather this year has been absolutely gorgeous,” Jackson said. “That will get us out of the gate.”

Oaklawn will take it from there. The track has prepared a 34-race, $5.2 million feast of stakes that includes some key changes. The purse for the Grade 2 Rebel on March 17 has been boosted from $300,000 to $500,000. Oaklawn’s program for 3-year-olds also includes the Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest on Feb. 20 and the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby on the closing-day card April 14.

“Through this circuit, there’s a strong possibility of three to five horses – if they stay sound – having enough graded earnings to get into the Kentucky Derby, if they choose to go that route,” said Pat Pope, racing secretary at Oaklawn.

“This year, when you win the Rebel and you get $300,000 . . . you’re in.”

Oaklawn has strengthened its closing-day card with the Grade 2, $350,000 Oaklawn Handicap and the Grade 2, $200,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap now supporting the Arkansas Derby. The three races had each occupied a different date during the Racing Festival of the South, but this year the festival has been condensed from six dates to four with Easter falling on April 8, the Sunday before the meet concludes.

“We never have raced on Easter,” Pope said. “It was the right year to say, ‘You know what, everyone’s doing this grouping of stakes.’ What we’re finding now is that most people are trying to condense to one day or two days, like Churchill Downs. We’ll really try to get them in here for the last four days, starting with the Fantasy at $300,000 on April 11.”

Another highlight of the festival is the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap on Friday, April 13.

Overnight purses will be strong, with maiden special weights worth $40,000, up from $36,000 in 201l. No-condition allowance races for sprinters are set at $46,000 and at $47,000 for route horses. And things are good for bottom-level runners, too. The meet’s minimum purse will start at $15,300, a pot available to horses racing for a claiming price of $5,000.

“It’s the richest first [condition] book we’ve ever had by quite a ways,” Jackson said. “If we can maintain that as we go through the year, as business allows, then it should be a record season in purse distribution.”

The number to beat is last year’s $341,000 a day.

Jackson said at least 40 percent of the purse structure will come from the gaming center at Oaklawn that features video poker, electronic blackjack, and Instant Racing. He said the track has added about 100 player positions since last year’s meet, to bring its total to 850.

Oaklawn’s increasing purses have been a magnet for top horses and horsemen. Caleb’s Posse, who is up for two Eclipse Awards on Monday, could see action in the Count Fleet, while the 3-year-old filly On Fire Baby, a two-time Grade 2 winner at Churchill Downs, will likely face males in the $100,000 Smarty Jones on Monday. Another top 3-year-old filly on the grounds, the undefeated Grade 3 winner Now I Know, is a candidate for the Dixie Belle on Saturday.

Kentucky-based trainer D. Wayne Lukas is back to defend his title against such new faces as Cody Autrey from Louisiana, Jeff Bonde from California, and Ken McPeek from Kentucky. And while the stable area has lost two key players in trainers Bob Holthus, who died in November, and Larry Jones, now based at Fair Grounds, it has again drawn divisions from such powerhouse operations as Steve Asmussen, who won a pair of Breeders’ Cup championship races in 2011, and Bret Calhoun, who did the same in 2010.

The riding colony is diverse, with Channing Hill wintering outside of New York for the first time since 2005; French native Florent Geroux coming to Hot Springs by way of a title win at Hawthorne in Chicago; and Gabe Saez and Carlos Gonzalez in from Fair Grounds. Cliff Berry has the target on his back as he won the title in 2011. Midwest Thoroughbreds, in the running for an Eclipse Award on Monday, has returned to defend its owners’ title at Oaklawn.

Horseplayers will be greeted with some wagering changes as Oaklawn has reduced the minimum on its pick-three and pick-four wagers to 50 cents, and its pick six to $1. Ontrack fans also will be able to bet from their smart phones, with the track’s new wagering service, My Oaklawn.