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A strong business season for Oaklawn Park reached a competitive peak April 15 with the 81st Arkansas Derby featuring the previous year's male juvenile champion.

Classic Empire's victory gave hope that the Grade 1 $1 million race, Oaklawn's oldest and richest, would produce the Kentucky Derby winner for the second time in three years. In a milestone for the Hot Springs track, American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner with Oaklawn experience in 2015, winning the Arkansas Derby and Rebel Stakes before becoming the first horse to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 37 years.

A crowd estimated at 62,500 witnessed the Arkansas Derby and supporting races on the final card of the live racing season. Oaklawn Handicap winner Inside Straight and Count Fleet Sprint Handicap winner Whitmore each trained locally, Whitmore's first of three victories coming on opening Sunday (Jan. 15) and second in March's Hot Springs Stakes.

Oaklawn this week announced nearly a 5-percent gain in total handle and another record-setting season for purses.

Good weather along with large, competitive fields led to total handle of $189,534,228 in 2017 compared to $180,582,197 in 2016.

Horsemen racing at Oaklawn benefited from the country's highest purse structure for the time of year. Maiden special weights increased from $72,000 to $80,000 during the season, allowance races topping out at $84,000 after starting at $74,000.

Record average daily purse distribution of $502,781 resulted in brisk action at the claiming box with 456 horses haltered for nearly $6.23 million.

Always at the mercy of Mother Nature with its late winter and early spring dates, Oaklawn raced the scheduled 57 days without a weather-related cancellation. It was Oaklawn's first perfect season regarding weather since 2012.

"Our goal is to offer our racing fans an entertainment value that is second to none and I couldn't be more proud of our team for helping us achieve that goal in a big way," General Manager Wayne Smith said in a release.

Trainer Steve Asmussen, jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. and owner Danny Caldwell repeated as meet champions. Asmussen led local trainers for the second year in a row and eighth time overall, totaling 41 victories and $2,763,845 in earnings. Santana, riding 53 winners, led the jockey standings for the fifth year in a row and had a meet-high $2,753,797 in earnings.

Caldwell, leading owner for the fourth year in a row, had 22 victories and $965,728 in earnings. The Poteau, Okla., horseman enjoyed the Fifth Season victory and Oaklawn Handicap second-place finish of 9-year-old Domain's Rap, a five-time Oaklawn winner since claimed for $10,000 by Caldwell at Oklahoma's Remington Park in 2015.

"They and all the horsemen helped us put on quite a show," Smith said. "It was a terrific season."

Oaklawn tweaked its stakes schedule this year, switching dates for the Razorback and Essex handicaps and bumping their purses. Moved from March to Presidents Day (Feb. 20), the Grade 3 $500,000 Razorback represented a winning 4-year-old debut for Gun Runner, who subsequently finished runner-up to champion Arrogate in the $10 million Dubai World Cup.

The Essex was moved to March 18, Rebel Stakes Day at Oaklawn, which generated total handle of $10,752,313, a non-Arkansas Derby Day record. With 36,000 on hand, Malagacy, a Kentucky Derby prospect, won the Grade 2 $900,000 Rebel.

"We're extremely pleased," said David Longinotti, Oaklawn's director of racing. "Gun Runner set the bar high when he won the Razorback so impressively ... and the quality of our stakes just got better from there. Rebel Stakes Day was super. We had last year's champion 2-year-old in the Arkansas Derby, thrilling renditions of the Count Fleet Sprint Handicap and Apple Blossom Handicap (won by champion racemare Stellar Wind), and absolutely beautiful weather throughout the final few weeks of the season ... a true crescendo."

Oaklawn said its Show Bet Bonus, designed for casual on-track patrons and offering higher payoffs to customers, proved successful.

"A lot of our patrons are brand-new racing fans on their first trip to a live track," Longinotti said. "We designed the Show Bet Bonus as a way to introduce new fans to racing in the hopes that they would be able to cash more tickets and have a more enjoyable experience. It exceeded our expectations in the first year.

"Show wagering has become one of our most popular wagers and, in fact, the show pool increased 34 percent over last year," Longinotti said. "You could hear people in the grandstand every race day talking about their show parlays."

Oaklawn's 57-day 2018 season begins Friday, Jan. 12 and runs through Saturday, April 14.

Local on 04/28/2017

Print Headline: Oaklawn handle rises with record purse sizes

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