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!