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Oaklawn in the air: back for a long run

by Bob Wisener | December 4, 2022 at 4:03 a.m.
Horses break from the starting gate during the first race of Oaklawn's live race meet on December 3, 2021. Oaklawn's racing season begins once again Friday. - File photo by The Sentinel-Record

For two racetracks on Central Avenue in their respective cities, the first week in May evokes different connotations.

All things are fresh at Churchill Downs in Louisville with the spring meet just under way and the biggest race of the year on tap early. Since 1875, the track has held its premier race in spring, something like NASCAR accepting an early date for its Super Bowl, the Daytona 500.

Churchill has all the crescendo it needs for the Kentucky Derby. More and more, Derby wagering and handicapping has become a cottage industry among racing fans. Nowhere is the sport more hallowed than in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, where the Stephen Collins Foster classic "My Old Kentucky Home" wafts in the air as horses step on the track for the big race.

At Oaklawn, a nip in the air is likely to greet the racing fan at any time. But it's no longer a sleepy little track in the Ouachita Mountains, one shuttered from mid-April to December.

Though its late president was a racing traditionalist, a purist in every sense of the word, Charles J. Cella's winter retreat in Hot Springs adapted with the times. Cella, the track's leader for almost 50 years, favored what's now called a boutique season with fewer racing dates and its major events back-loaded to the closing week. Until recent years, the featured Arkansas Derby was positioned on closing day in April, three weeks from the Kentucky Derby as a concession to horsemen in hope that an Oaklawn-based horse might win the spring classic in Louisville.

After years of trying, Oaklawn had its first harbingers of Triple Crown success when Arkansas Derby winners No Le Hace placed in the Kentucky Derby (1972) and Elocutionist won the Preakness (1976). Another milestone came in 1980 when Temperence Hill paired up victories in the Arkansas Derby and Belmont Stakes, going on to the male 3-year-old championship.

It took until 1983 for Oaklawn to fulfill its Kentucky Derby dream with Canadian champion Sunny's Halo winning two Oaklawn races and then in Louisville for Canadian owner David Foster.

In 2004, the track's centennial racing season, Smarty Jones collected a $5-million bonus from Oaklawn for sweeping three races including the Arkansas and Kentucky derbies. Cella took an Arkansas delegation (press members included) to old Philadelphia Park on Monday of Preakness week to reward the horse's aging owners, Roy and Patricia Chapman, with the bonus check. Perhaps the most popular horse ever to run at Oaklawn, Smarty Jones raced at peak form in the Preakness, making the cover of Sports Illustrated after the Derby. With the sports world at its feet, the John Servis trainee finished a close second (though eight lengths ahead of the show horse) in the Belmont Stakes with 120,000 people trackside.

Cella lived to see the surpassing triumph of American Pharoah in 2015, the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years after opening his 3-year-old season with victories in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby, dual winners including Temperence Hill, Sunny's Halo and Smarty Jones.

Oaklawn hasn't produced a Kentucky Derby winner since American Pharoah, unless one counts Country House's 2019 decision through the disqualification of rival Maximum Security. That stroke of luck can change in a twinkling, which racing fans look to discover when Oaklawn's live season rolls around Friday.

Although champions in all classes of dirt racing may come forth, the spotlight will be on 3-year-olds through closing day, May 6, on which the 149th Kentucky Derby falls. The track's almost 50-year-ban on juvenile racing lifted last year, 2-year-olds try their hand in the $150,000 Advent Stakes Friday. The first 3-year-old stakes race of consequence is Jan. 1, when North American-bred horses celebrate a universal birthday, with the $250,000 Smarty Jones Stakes.

From six furlongs in the Advent, horses stretch out to one mile for the Smarty Jones, the first of four Oaklawn preps to issue Kentucky Derby qualifying points. The Grade 3 $750,000 Southwest Stakes Jan. 28 and the Grade 2 $1 million Rebel Stakes Feb. 25 follow at 1 1/16 miles. With Kentucky Derby contenders worldwide sorting themselves out, the Grade 1 $1.25 million Arkansas Derby, the track's oldest (since 1936) and richest race, comes April 1 at nine furlongs.

The 67-day season includes eight December dates on three-day weekends through Dec. 31 with the appropriately named inaugural runnings of two stakes, the Renaissance and the Year's End. Oaklawn is off Dec. 19-29 for Christmas holidays and dark April 9, Easter Sunday.

Twelve dates in January and 13 in February (including Feb. 20, a Monday card on Presidents Day) are scheduled. Four-day weeks, racing Thursday through Sunday, come in March with 18 programs. After 13 April dates, the season ends with three cards in the first week of May.

Last year's Arkansas Derby winner, Cyberknife, though 18th in the Kentucky Derby, won a second Grade 1 race in the Haskell at Monmouth Park and placed second in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. Filly Secret Oath, a three-time Oaklawn winner, rewarded octogenarian trainer Wayne Lukas with a victory in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks at Churchill after placing third against males in the Arkansas Derby. She is a possibility for the Grade 1 $1 million Apple Blossom Handicap April 15. Another seven-figure race, the $1 million Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap, is April 22.

The meet opens with Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, long the track's annual leader, closing in on a North American record 10,000 career victories. The Texan usually outnumbers his closest rivals, often with multiple entries in a race, though he can expect strong bids from past training champion Robertino Diodoro and Brad Cox, defending two-time Eclipse Award winner. Another trainer to watch is John Ortiz, who along with Cox helped Hot Springs horseman John Ed Anthony enjoy a stellar 2021-22 season and become the track's leader in career wins by an owner. Longtime regulars include Ron Moquett, trainer of retired sprint champion and Oaklawn star Whitmore, whom the track honors with a $200,000 Grade 3 race March 18.

Fitting into the longer season rather than as an end unto itself, the Racing Festival of the South comes late in the season with the $600,000 Fantasy and $500,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap, both Grade 3, among the featured races. The expanded stakes schedule includes inaugural runnings of two $150,000 races, the Lake Ouachita and the Lake Hamilton, and six stakes for Arkansas-bred horses.

More than 800 horses were stabled on the backstretch late in the week, Cella said, with more expected. Oaklawn may accept horses from Churchill Downs in two weeks, he said, once a backstretch health scare there abates. An influx of horses should be coming soon, Cella said, from Trackside, an off-track facility in Louisville operated by Churchill Downs.

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