By Noel Michaels
The Oaklawn Park meet is off and running, and already key jockey and trainer trends have become clear one week into the season.
Of course, the usual leaders, trainer Steve Asmussen and jockey Ricardo Santana, Jr., are on top, but the Florent Geroux is now riding at Oaklawn and appears headed for a huge meet.
Asmussen and Santana are a well-known duo at Oaklawn with many meet titles between them. Geroux is the biggest news story of the meet after moving his winter tack from the Fair Grounds for the first time, in large part due to current COVID-19 travel restrictions for the big stakes opportunities available to him at Oaklawn, particularly in rich 3-year-old races.
Geroux wasted no time making his mark. He is tied with defending jockey champion Santana with seven wins through the first three days of action. Geroux accomplished his seven wins from 17 mounts, giving him 41% wins and a 65% ITM percentage. Geroux has risen to the level of an elite national rider in recent years and should continue to battle it out all season with Santana.
Santana is also no surprise to see at the top of the standings and should keep pace with Geroux throughout the season in what should percolate into a headed jockey battle. Santana rides first call for Asmussen, and as Asmussen goes, so goes Santana at Oaklawn. With Asmussen already off to a hot start at the 2021 Oaklawn meet, Santana has benefited with seven wins from his first 23 mounts for a win percentage of 30%. Santana won six riding titles in a row from 2013-18, lost the title in 2019 to David Cohen, then reclaimed it last season when he finished with 61 victories.
Those who remember the 2020 Oaklawn meet no doubt remember the epic and sustained battle for the title between Santana and Cohen, in addition to Martin Garcia and Joe Talamo that was much closer than the final totals suggest. In 2020 behind Santana, Talamo and Garcia finished tied for second with 53 wins apiece. Cohen tailed off late to finish fourth with 44 wins. Meanwhile, handicappers should take note of the 2020 performance of Orlando Mojica, who picked up 38 wins at last year’s meet with a very strong ROI thanks to the fact that his average win price was far higher than any of the other top jockeys.
Other than the arrival of Geroux, the other big news among Oaklawn jockeys is that Talamo tested positive for COVID-19 and is out indefinitely. That leaves Geroux and Santana to dominate, with Garcia and Cohen to battle it out for third. Talamo had been heavily relied upon by Eclipse Award finalist trainer Brad Cox at the 2020 Oaklawn meet, and now those mounts will at least temporarily have to go elsewhere. It appears that Geroux will be the main beneficiary.
The 2020 season at Oaklawn represented a shakeup from what we have come to expect in terms of leading trainer. The usual winner, Steve Asmussen, had won 10 meet titles in a row through 2019, but finished second to Robertino Diodoro’s 52 victories (22% winners) in 2020. In 2019, Asmussen posted 64 wins at the Oaklawn meet. Diodoro finally broke through last season after finishing second the previous three years.
Besides the high win percentage, what was the main factor that allowed Diodoro to pass Asmussen in 2020? The Hall of Famer went into an unusual slump from the last days of March until April 9, with 43 straight losses. Asmussen came on strong late in the meet, boosting Santana to the jockey title, but fell short of catching the more consistent Diodoro as leading trainer.
After the first week, Asmussen is right where you would expect him to be back atop the standings with seven winners from his first 22 starters for a 32% winning rate. He now has surpassed the 700-win milestone in his career at Oaklawn Park, making him the second-leading trainer in the history of the track. For handicappers, it should be noted that Asmussen’s sprinters have been winning a lot more than his horses in Oaklawn routes. In 2020 he won 18% in sprints as opposed to 11% in routes.
The other trainer off to a hot start, not surprisingly, is Brad Cox, who won five races from his first 13 starters for a 38% win rate. Expect him to compete with Asmussen and Diodoro for the meet title after finishing third in the standings last year with 26 wins. For handicappers, things are exactly the opposite with Cox as they are with Asmussen. Cox wins route races, where his win percentage was an eye-opening 31%, as opposed to 15% in sprints.
Diodoro seems to win consistently at all distances. His bettors were disappointed opening week, however, when he had one win from 11 starters.
Five other trainers who you will hear a lot of at Oaklawn are Federico Villfranco, Ron Moquett, Ingrid Mason, and Tom Amoss.
Finally, expect the Southern California invasion to continue into Arkansas this season, with the likes of Doug O’Neill (nine wins in 2020), John Sadler (15 wins), Jerry Hollendorfer (12 wins) all arriving to Oaklawn with large strings, in addition to Bob Baffert, who as always will make his presence felt in Oaklawn stakes races.
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.