"The sun always shines at Oaklawn" doesn't always hold true but did so long enough Friday, opening day for the 2022-23 local racing season, to brighten spirits.
The track was rated muddy but the sun was out with temperatures in the 60s before the nine races ended after 4 p.m. Track president Louis Cella was in high spirits, and not just because trainer Ron Moquett, who races some of his horses, had two winners, both in the silks of Little Rock's Harry Rosenblum.
"That was good," said Cella, whose father, the late Charles J. Cella, track president for nearly 50 years, once won the Oaklawn Handicap locally and the Breeders' Cup Turf in New York as a horse owner. Northern Spur, owned by Cella, won the 1995 Eclipse Award as champion male turfer off the latter victory.
Oaklawn's second December opener drew an estimated 13,500 fans, who contributed $497,531 to the all-sources handle of more than $5 million Friday.
"We're not New York or California," he said -- for one thing, a caller said, Oaklawn fields are larger. "We're just a place with full fields and large purses, 13,000 people who love horse racing. They're the real deal."
Count de Monet, shipping in from Indiana, surprised odds-on favorite Tyler's Tribe in the featured $150,000 Advent Stakes. Two added-money races dot today's 10-race card, also starting at 12:30 p.m., the Ring the Bell and the Mistletoe with $150,000 purses.
The Ring the Bell honors a program of the same name that gives winning connections following each race an opportunity to donate at least $100 toward aftercare. The program raised $14,000 during the final days of the 2021-22 Oaklawn season in a collaboration between Oaklawn and the state chapter of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.
Donations are signaled -- loudly -- by hand-ringing a large copper-colored bell hung in back of the Larry Snyder Winner's Circle. Moquett, trainer of retired champion male sprinter Whitmore and with a home adjacent to the Oaklawn backstretch, spearheaded the program.
Cella himself takes credit for the first-Saturday food promotion in which the track's signature corned-beef sandwich sells for 50 cents (soft drinks for a dime) while supplies last. Gates open at 11 a.m., and those coming mainly for the food are asked to arrive early.
"My dad was asking one day what we could do to boost attendance," Cella said. "I said, 'Why not bring back 1904 prices?'," referencing the year Oaklawn opened.
Needless to say, that idea found a receptive audience, both in the board room and the grandstand.