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Seasons overlap, but Oaklawn will still endure

by Bob Wisener | December 9, 2022 at 4:05 a.m.
Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort employees gather for a group photo Thursday in front of Oaklawn's new Mainline Sports Bar and Sportsbook. - Photo by Lance Porter of The Sentinel-Record

Hollywood maverick Robert Altman, in 1970s films like "M*A*S*H and "Nashville," challenged the audience with overlapping dialogue. Two of his stars, Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, kept it going in a 2006 tribute to the late director when he received an honorary Oscar.

Even with no professional sports team, Arkansas sports fans deal with overlapping seasons. What many call the state's Fifth Season begins today with a new racing season at Oaklawn. A nine-race card starts at 12:30 p.m. with the featured eighth race, the $150,000 Advent, showcasing 2-year-olds in the track's second December opener.

Look about for evidence that seasons are changing. Razorback football is winding down (not a minute too soon, detractors would say of a 6-6 team) while Razorback basketball is in full swing with the women's team cracking the national polls this week and the men's team, a loss in Hawaii notwithstanding, in the top 10. Before Oaklawn bids adieu in May for another year, the fate of Arkansas teams coached by Eric Musselman and Mike Neighbors will become known.

By then, the Razorback baseball team will be filling seats at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville with hopes of bringing coach Dave Van Horn's program an elusive national championship.

Oaklawn closes May 6, coinciding with the 149th Kentucky Derby.

Following the Advent, Oaklawn offers four stakes that reward Kentucky Derby qualifying points. The Road to the Triple Crown accelerates with the Jan. 1 running of the Smarty Jones, honoring the 2004 Arkansas Derby winner, a dual classic winner. The Grade 3 Southwest and the Grade 2 Rebel further narrow 3-year-old prospects for the $1.25 million Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on April 1.

If Oaklawn issued future odds on the season-ending leaders, an exacta with Steve Asmussen and "all" on the trainers' side might be the ticket, even if the payoffs are small. A 12-time Oaklawn champion and Hall of Famer, Asmussen keeps adding to the North American record for career training victories -- his next target an astounding 10,000 in number. The Texan employs several jockeys -- some of his best work locally coming with Ricardo Santana Jr. -- but any Asmussen trainee, sometimes more than one in a race, deserves a look. Keith Asmussen, his son, is in the Oaklawn jockey colony this year.

Oaklawn does not bestow in-house awards for outstanding horses at the meeting, but such a poll in the 2021-22 season might have found Secret Oath's name at the top.

Three local victories and an Arkansas Derby third had Briland Farm's 3-year-old filly at the top of her game in the Kentucky Oaks on Derby eve at Churchill Downs. After a good showing in an ultracompetitive Breeders' Cup Distaff at Keeneland, it was announced that Secret Oath would run at 4 with Oaklawn's $1 million Apple Blossom Handicap in April a likely objective. At 87, racing has few greater friends than her Hall of Fame trainer, Wayne Lukas, a past Oaklawn yearly champion.

Although Santana is not listed on mounts for Oaklawn's three-day opening weekend, the jockeys' race should be intense. David Cabrera held on for his first title last year after an injury late in the season. Past Oaklawn champ David Cohen is back, and Francisco Arrieta has top-five potential. Nationally prominent Rafael Bejarano is here, leading a migration from California to a track with larger fields and superior purses. The same inducements brought Joel Rosario to Hot Springs for a stretch last season.

Any future-book trifecta of Oaklawn trainers should include Asmussen, past local champion Robertino Diodoro and Cox, who in his early 40s, with a Kentucky Derby victory and two Eclipse Awards, is on the fast track to racing's hall of fame.

Few trainers made such a blazing ascent locally last time around as John Ortiz, who developed the hard-knocking Triple Crown prospect Barber Road for owner William Simon and, along with Cox, presided over the Shortleaf Stable of Hot Springs lumberman John Ed Anthony. A winner three times of the Arkansas Derby and a like number of Triple Crown races, Anthony became Oaklawn's career leader in races won by an owner last year.

Any latter-day shrine to local trainers would be incomplete without Ron Moquett, for whom Oaklawn renamed the Hot Springs Stakes in honor of his greatest runner, champion sprinter Whitmore. His clients include track President Louis Cella, who like his father and predecessor, the late Charles J. Cella, operates a modest stable besides running the track.

Cella's leadership at Oaklawn has earned national attention with racing, casino gambling, a hotel and convention center under the same roof. Open for business since 1904 and every year since 1934, Oaklawn is the Fifth Season of Arkansas, a track that keeps up with the times while blazing new trails.

Leave it to Asmussen, its most successful trainer, to supply the postscript. After the announcement in summer 2021 that Oaklawn would race from December to May, himself while passing the late Dale Baird as the sport's career leader in North American training victories, Asmussen was quoted: "Never can get enough Oaklawn."

Print Headline: Seasons overlap, but Oaklawn will still endure


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