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HRN Original Blog:
12th Crown

The Derby Trail goes through Oaklawn Park

Oaklawn Derby Map
Havre de Grace and Blind Luck, Caleb’s Posse, Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, Lookin At Lucky, Summer Bird, Curlin, Lawyer Ron, Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones, Azeri - a who's who of Eclipse champions over the last decade all put their indelible stamp on the one mile oval framed by blooming dogwoods.  Before that there were champions the likes of Althea, Sunny's Halo, Temperence Hill, Lil E. Tee, Paseana, Bayakoa, Tiffany Lass and Cigar.  Over the past decade, discussions about Oaklawn Park begin and end with the Kentucky Derby Trail
 
Saturday, April 14 will mark the 76th running of the $1 million Arkansas Derby. Based on its spring calendar, Oaklawn has focused on attracting nationally ranked sophomores with its series of Smarty Jones Stakes - Southwest Stakes - Rebel Stakes - Arkansas Derby.  The filly division includes the Honeybee Stakes and Fantasy Stakes.  In commemoration of its milestone 100th season in 2004 (though there were many dark years in between due to political wrangling), Oaklawn launched a centennial bonus of $5 million for any horse that could sweep the Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby.  A little chestnut colt owned by Roy and Patricia Chapman named Smarty Jones parlayed this good fortune into one of the biggest media sensations in the track's history hosting numerous “Smarty Parties” as they became known. It is believed that the Oaklawn cashiers actually ran out of cash and were forced to issue IOU’s on Kentucky Derby day, since nearly every person at the Central Avenue race track bet on Smarty Jones.  
 
According to Jennifer Hoyt in Oaklawn's media department, among the early Derby candidates are several exiting the Remington Springboard Stakes - a race that produced Donnie Von Hemel's standout from last season, Caleb's Posse. These include Reckless Jerry (Kenny Smith), Pee H Dee (Chris Richard) and No Spin (Tim Ice).  Other trainers expected to show off their colts in either the Smarty Jones or Southwest Stakes include Allen Milligan with Jake Mo and D. Wayne Lukas with his promising English Channel colt, Optimizer.  Rick Jackson already has the talented McRaub, a leggy soon-to-be 3YO Malibu Moon colt out of a Touch Gold mare that broke his maiden at Remington Park in the summer, on the Oaklawn backstretch.  Bob Baffert usually sends a couple of his deep stable from California to the Spa for the Rebel and/or Arkansas Derby and this year he trains Sky Kingdom and Macho Rocket for Arkansas based owners. The Fantasy stakes could be another top filly race in the country with names like On Fire Baby, Now I Know and Grace Hall each receiving a lot of buzz.
 
Oaklawn had another media coup in 2010 when racing industry officials were lamenting the fact that Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra would likely not meet on the track.  Charles Cella went out of his way to secure a private deal with owners Jerry Moss and Jess Jackson to set up the closest thing to a match race that we would ever see in our lifetime. Even after moving the date and changing the distance of the race to appease each owner, the race never materialized after Rachel Alexandra was defeated in New Orleans and the deal was quashed by Jess Jackson.
 
Oaklawn Park has always had a reputation for being innovators in the racing industry.  Owner Charles Cella, who assumed the track upon the death of his father John G. Cella in 1968, was a front-runner when it came to a racing festival concept.  He put together the first "Racing Festival of the South" in 1974 that bunches numerous graded stakes races over the last week of the meet in mid April.  Oaklawn was also one of the first tracks to embrace simulcasting races to and from other tracks as an added revenue stream and you will hear Terry Wallace (who is stepping down as track announcer after 37 years and 21,000 races) routinely announce major changes and scratch info from other tracks even during a live race day.  Most recently, Oaklawn developed the Instant Racing series of gaming devices that boosted their own purses before being granted an expanded racino lineup of video poker, slot machines and electronic table games by 2010. 
Even more fan friendly changes are on tap for 2012.  According to Oaklawn’s website, on-site racing fans will be able to enjoy the convenience of wagering with their smart phones when the track opens for the live season Friday, Jan. 13. MyOaklawn will work with all i-phones, i-pads, Androids and Blackberrys through Oaklawn's free wi-fi service. Patrons will be able to sign up for MyOaklawn at the Information Booth upon arrival at the track and can fund their accounts and collect their winnings at designated mutuel windows throughout the facility. Oaklawn has also reduced the minimum bet for the Pick 3, Pick 4 and Classix wager. The Pick 3 and Pick 4 will both have a 50-cent minimum, while the Classix, a Pick 6 wager, is going from $2 to $1. In addition, Oaklawn races will be covered by TVG for the first time and TVG personality Frank Mirahmadi is assuming the role as new race caller.  
Racing at Oaklawn will primarily be conducted from Thursdays through Sundays, with the exceptions of opening week, which kicks off Friday, January 13 and ends on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, President’s Day weekend and the final week of the season which runs from Wednesday through Saturday.  The Oaklawn meet will offer stakes worth over $5 million, including 10 graded events highlighted by the Grade I Apple Blossom Handicap and $1 million Arkansas Derby on closing day. Like I said, when it comes to Oaklawn Park, the discussion begins and ends with Derby talk!

 

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Older Comments about The Derby Trail goes through Oaklawn Park...

Not sure how many of you frequent Oaklawn, so while there won't be a "Cougar Day" per se, there are plenty of eligible ladies and dudes hanging around the second level sports bar. Seriously though, it's an extremely social place where people do care about the horses.
From an ESPN article: "At Oaklawn Park, there will never be a Cougar Day, a Mike vs. Chantal match race, or an advertising campaign featuring exotic dancers; there will never be night racing, or camel racing or ostrich racing. At Oaklawn Park, horses and racing matter. "
  • skipaway2000 · with all due respect, Oaklawn is in the middle of Arkansas and does not have to compete with the other entertainment options available to folks in SoCal or Florida, which is why they do not have to use the tactics listed above. · 950 days ago
Look for Out of Bounds to take the Smary jones today on his way to the derby
I love Oaklawn. Both Lawyer Ron and Curlin, two of my faves came from their before the Derby. Also wise to note how often a horse coming from Arkansas runs in the top 4 finishers in the Derby. 2004 Smarty wins, 2005 Afleet Alex third, 2006 Stepanwolfer third, 2007 Curlin third, 2008 Eight Bells second, 2009 Papa Clem 4th, 2010 Super Saver won, 2011 Nehro second. It is most certainly a hot track that has probably one of the best and most consistent Derby records in the last decade.
My only gripe with OP is that many top jockeys don't like to ride there early in meet due to frigid temps, so they don't have a top jock colony. At least, not like when I was a kid with Pat Day, Randy Romero, Larry Snyder, Chris McCarron and Jerry Bailey. Defections include Gomez, Borel, Albarado...
Looking forward to the Oaklawn meet! It may begin and end with Derby talk, but there's no denying the prestige of some of the stake races on tap.
  • 12thCrown · True that - the Spa has been known for top filly/mares ever since Ron McAnally would bring his greats to town for the racing festival - Bayakoa, Paseana, etc. Larry Jones has followed that up with Eight Belles, Proud Spell, Havre de Grace - although he's actually stabled and FG this winter. · 967 days ago
Has been the NOW place for years. One of the best meets of the winter.
Oh, and I forgot to mention the roll back the clock 50 cent famous corned beef sandwiches on opening Saturday! So popular (and delicious) since the 100th anniversary seasaon that they've stuck with this promotion. Has to be the best racetrack food of all time!!!
Excellent coverage about Oaklawn, interesting background, crisp writing....will look forward to reading a lot more from Eric. Love the "historian" aspect to your history, Eric. I never tire of learning about this sport, especially from an historical perspective.
Meet Eric Kords
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Eric is a historian of thoroughbred racing at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas and across the country. He has witnessed in person nearly every significant race that has occurred at Oaklawn Park since the mid-1980’s including such recent Eclipse champions as Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, Lookin at Lucky, Summer Bird and Curlin, classic performers including Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones, Victory Gallop, Lil’ E Tee, Pine Bluff and Grindstone, top handicap champions Cigar, Lawyer Ron and Best Pal, and finally Distaff champions the likes of Azeri, Bayakoa, Paseana, Escena and Ginger Punch.  
 
Eric has also attended the most historically significant races across the country including the 2010 Breeders' Cup featuring Zenyatta’s epic finale, 2008 Breeders' Cup featuring Curlin’s final race, the Eclipse clinching victory by Rachel Alexandra against the boys in the 2009 Woodward Stakes at Saratoga, 2010 Preakness Stakes won by Eclipse champion Lookin at Lucky, 2004 Belmont Stakes where Smarty Jones was denied the Triple Crown by Birdstone, 1996 Pacific Classic at Del Mar where Cigar’s 16 consecutive win streak ended at the hooves of Dare and Go, Jim Dandy Stakes and Travers Stakes at Saratoga, Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park and Summit of Speed Festival at Calder just to name the most memorable.  Eric now resides in Dallas, TX and counts Oaklawn Park, The Fair Grounds and Lone Star Park as his “home tracks.” He has recently entered the thoroughbred owner ranks with the launch of his Saturday Racing Syndicate.