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Arkansas Derby boasts 'extraordinary' card

'Travesty' grandstands will be empty, Cella says by Beth Reed | May 2, 2020 at 4:00 a.m.
Exercise rider Joel Osorio heads to the track on Charlatan at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort Thursday. Charlatan is the morning favorite in the first division of the Arkansas Derby scheduled to run Saturday. - Photo by Richard Rasmussen of The Sentinel-Record

Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort has possibly the best racing card it has offered in nearly 50 years of the Arkansas Derby according to Louis Cella, president of Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, and it's "a travesty" the grandstand and infield will be empty.

"There will only be one common denominator and that is that we will have the best racing in the country for three-year-olds," Cella told The Sentinel-Record Friday. "Even though that would typically be three weeks before the first weekend in May, we are honored and thrilled to be able to show it on the first Saturday in May."

Oaklawn announced on March 20 a decision to move the Arkansas Derby from April 11 to May 2, closing out the live 2020 meet. The organization said in a news release that due to the closing of the casino and racetrack to the public, Oaklawn could have raced with purses intact through April 18, "but, upon discussions with the HBPA (Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association), decided instead to reduce purses across the board and 'stay until May.' As a result, the Arkansas Derby purse will be reduced to $750,000."

"(The meet) has been successful in that we have been able to offer racing, frankly, for our horsemen and their staff, the grooms and the vets and assistants. They all have to make a living and the only way they make a living is through purses," he said.

"From Oaklawn's standpoint it has not been very positive," with no fans or casino patrons, no food and beverage or gift shop sales.

"When you add all that to the list, it hasn't been very good for Oaklawn. But we're honored and it is good to help our horsemen. We're a team. We could not do this without them. They had to do an awful lot of things to secure a healthy environment. They were in charge of their employees and the fact of the matter is between the horsemen and the management at Oaklawn, we've had still 750 folks every single day -- day in and day out -- and they've all worked with us, our protocols in place to get through it."

Media Relations Manager Jennifer Hoyt said Oaklawn is working to continue as many traditions as possible.

"As far as tradition goes, we still have the top three-year-olds in the country here," she said. "It's very likely that the horses you see running are the ones you're going to see running in September in the Kentucky Derby."

Traditions such as concluding the card with the Trails End Race and playing Auld Lang Syne during the post parade will continue this year. While no fans will be permitted on site, races will be televised on three networks -- Fox Sports 1, TVG Network and NBC Sports.

Only members of the media that have been allowed on site during the meet will be allowed today. Hoyt said while there have been inquiries from across the country about receiving updates and news releases, no out-of-state media have reached out for access on Derby Day.

Cella said that looking forward, the racing community is hoping to see a brighter 2021.

"I know one thing and that is we all hope this gets behind us and we all hope the live season 2021 is like live season 2019, and not so much live season 2020. That we hope," he said.

"We are working through all sorts of contingencies. ... We have to be flexible and so we're going to do our best to be flexible. We just don't know and no one does."

Despite circumstances surrounding COVID-19, Cella said construction at Oaklawn is on schedule.

"We stopped construction when we stopped opening with fans and closed the casino primarily because we just didn't know what was happening. We pulled everyone off the construction site for three weeks," he said. "They are back working. They have been for a couple of weeks now.

"We are on schedule, which is remarkable simply because we were a little ahead of schedule before we shut down. We anticipate continuing to have them work and open sometime at the end of this year. That's our plan. It's fluid. There's no reason to believe that's not going to happen, but again there's so many moving parts that's all we can hope for."

Cella said being able to complete the live meet is something worth being excited about.

"It really is the best racing card that Oaklawn has offered maybe in the last 50 years. It's just extraordinary and we're very excited to be able to offer two Arkansas Derbies. It is a shame -- it is a travesty -- that fans can't be here," he said.

"We'll be on television. (Fans) can look at it from a number of different stations. It's streamed on Oaklawn Anywhere so you can see it. But it's an absolute travesty because that's what makes Oaklawn fun. When we have 60,000 to 70,000 people who really, really appreciate horse racing -- and good, competitive horse racing -- that's what makes Oaklawn special. It's going to be a little tough to watch tomorrow with empty stands and no one in the infield, but we're trying to get by and we're delighted to be able to complete this meet."

Local on 05/02/2020

Print Headline: Arkansas Derby boasts 'extraordinary' card 'Travesty' grandstands will be empty, Cella says


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