By Lynne Snierson
It was the scenic Ouachita Mountains, the charming art deco architecture, and the therapeutic mineral baths from the abundant thermal springs that always attracted visitors to Hot Springs, Arkansas, which incidentally is home to a racetrack. But oh my how things have changed in what used to be a little hamlet, including a new name for the track.
Oaklawn Park is now called Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, and when the seventh oldest thoroughbred track in America kicks off its 116th season on Friday an entirely new look will be on display. A grand hotel, events center, expanded gaming center, luxury spa and new restaurants are part of the $100 million expansion that has transformed the track owned by four generations of the Cella family into a state-of-the-art, full casino and track. In addition, the grandstand has been refurbished and six new barns were built in time for the 57-day meet, which begins Friday, featuring the $150,000 Smarty, an early Kentucky Derby (G1) prep.
It’s not just the commitment to upgrades that helped the track stay in business after a shaky outlook in the early 2000s, it’s the quality of racing – with a $600,000 average daily purse distribution – and the decision of some top trainers and jockeys from other track to winter here.
Oaklawn should have full fields to go with high purses and that combination is a big part of its “A New Level of Excitement” marketing campaign.
That Smarty Jones tops Friday’s nine-race card at Oaklawn, the first of the track’s four-race series for 3-ytear-olds on the Triple Crown trail offering Derby qualifying points. The Smarty Jones, named for the 2004 Derby and Preakness (G1) winner and with 10-4-2-1 points up for grabs, attracted a solid field of nine contesting the two-turn mile. Five are stakes winners, while two have a graded stakes score on their sheet.
Moreover, four of the nine are conditioned by Hall of Famer and 10-time Oaklawn leading trainer Steve Asmussen. His contingent is led by probable early favorite Shoplifted, the winner of the Springboard Mile at Remington Park last out who is fifth on the Derby leaderboard with 10 points. Likely second choice is Asmussen’s Silver Prospector, winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2), and his other starters are Jungle Runner (Clever Trevor winner) and Gold Street (Sugar Bowl winner).
Still, the Mark Casse-trained Lynn’s Map may be the shortest price when the gates open as he has won at the one-mile distance and is riding a two-race win streak. Originally targeted for last Saturday’s Lecomte Stakes at the Fair Grounds, Casse didn’t like his far outside draw in the 14-horse field and diverted him here, where he’ll break from post 8 under Miguel Mena.
With a victory, Lynn’s Map would give Casse, who won the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes (G1) in 2019 but is still seeking his first Derby win, two hopefuls as Enforceable stayed in New Orleans and won the Lecomte and is currently in second place on the Derby leaderboard with 13 points.
Three Technique is another expected to attract attention at the windows, especially since Eclipse Award-winning rider Irad Ortiz, Jr. is jetting in to ride him. Owned by NFL Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells’ August Dawn Farm and named for a football defensive alignment involving an interior lineman, the Jeremiah Englehart-trainee tackles stakes company as well as two turns for his first time after winning his last two races in New York by a combined 10 lengths.
“He was always one of the 2-year-olds early on that we just thought really highly of at Saratoga,” Englehart said. “It was really disappointing after his first race. I thought he would be one of those horses that would win first time out, but it was just a little too short for him. He seems like a horse, with maybe some added distance, it will move him up a little bit,” said Englehart, who is among the trainers who will have a division at Oaklawn for the first time.
Peter Miller, John Sadler, Phil D’Amato and Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer are stabling a first-time contingent at Oaklawn due to the ongoing uncertainty with California racing.
Miller trains Rockingham Ranch’s Nucky, who tries to get the barn off to a good start in the Smarty Jones. Nucky is looking to find the winner’s circle for the first time since he posed for photos following the Del Mar Futurity (G1) in September and he and Joe Talamo drew post 4. Talamo, who rides Nucky for the first time, moved his tack here from the California circuit, as did Tyler Baze and Martin Garcia.
“It was a big decision,” said Talamo, who relocated his family and has been here working horses in the morning since Jan. 6. “At the same time, I think there’s a lot more opportunity out here, as far as riding more and possibly winning more, hopefully. It was a hard decision, but kind of an easy one at the same time. The way things are out here, the purse money is incredible. The horse population is incredible. Everything seems in growth mode right now. I thought if there is a time to do it, this would definitely be a good time.”
Lykan, an Ingrid Mason-trainee who graduated from the maiden ranks three starts back and has never been around two turns, drew the rail and completes the Smarty Jones field.
Oaklawn’s Kentucky Derby points series continues with the $750,000 Southwest (G3) on Feb. 17, the $1 million Rebel (G2) on March 14, and the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) on April 11.
On Saturday, when the track offers its annual, popular promotion of corned beef sandwiches for 50 cents, the 31st running of the $100,000 Fifth Season Stakes for older horses going one mile drew so much interest that the track split it into two divisions of eight horses each and kept the six figure purse for both. Additionally, the $100,000 Pippin Stakes is on the card (race 7) and 11 fillies and mares aged 4 and up were entered and will also travel once around the oval.
In the second division of the Fifth Season (Race 8) all eyes will be on Calumet Farm’s homebred Bravazo and Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who for the past several years has made Oaklawn his winter base.
Lukas had pointed the earner of more than $2 million to a 5-year-old campaign beginning with the $3 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park and continuing with the inaugural $20 million Saudi Cup on Feb, 29 in Saudi Arabia and the $12 million Dubai World Cup (G1) on March 28 in the United Arab Emirates. Instead, Bravazo, who is coming off surgery to remove a bone chip in his knee, will stay right at home to compete in Oaklawn’s series for older horses, which include the $500,000 Razorback Handicap on Feb. 17, the $350,000 Essex Handicap on March 14, and the $1 million Oaklawn Handicap on April 18.
Because of the bone chip Bravazo started only twice in 2019, finishing fourth in the 2019 Pegasus World Cup and eighth in his comeback race, the $600,000 Clark (G2) Nov. 29 at Churchill Downs.
“During the winter, there’s no three races that have the purse structure that Oaklawn has. That’s a credit to Oaklawn, really, to have that purse structure,” Lukas said. “The other thing that enters into it, it gives us a horse that’s probably going to be fresh and right on his game going into the Grade 1 season in the spring.”
In the first division of the Fifth Season (race 5) Bloom Racing’s Snapper Sinclair looks like the standout for Asmussen. Now 5, he was brought back this year instead of being retired.
“He’s a young horse,” said owner Jeff Bloom. “He’s healthy, doing well and running big numbers. There was no reason to not continue to run him this year.”
Though he’s won stakes races on the grass, including the $750,000 Tourist Mile at Kentucky Downs last August, he’s yet to record a main track stakes score. But he has been close a few times and does show an affinity for Oaklawn, where he was beaten only a head in the Essex Handicap last year.
Oaklawn’s 2020 live meet continues through Saturday, May 2, which is also Kentucky Derby Day. First posts for the opening three-day week of racing are 12:30 p.m. Friday, 1 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
“With our initial races filling up so quickly, we are confident that we have an amazing season ahead,” said general manager Wayne Smith. “We are kicking off a new level of racing with everything we’ll be offering this year, and the full fields right off the bat show that the horsemen and the racing industry as a whole are as excited as we are about being at Oaklawn.”
Lynne Snierson, a former director of communications at Arlington Park and Rockingham Park, currently is a freelance writer and racing publicist. She covered thoroughbred racing as an award-winning sportswriter for newspapers In Boston, Miami, and St. Louis. She lives in New Hampshire. Secretariat remains her all-time favorite horse.