Oaklawn Park 2019 meet will run through first Saturday in May.
Oaklawn Park plans to make the most significant change to its racing schedule since World War II.
The Arkansas oval is a momentum-driven meet that traditionally runs its biggest race, the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1), on closing day. But in 2019, Oaklawn will open Jan. 25 and run through May 4, three weeks after the Arkansas Derby. Other than 1945, when the track had to postpone its season until the fall because of wartime restrictions, Oaklawn has traditionally concluded its racing season with the Arkansas Derby in mid-April.
Late April 11, the Arkansas Racing Commission unanimously approved Oaklawn’s request to race 57 days in 2019, a dramatic philosophical shift for a track that prides itself on the status quo. Oaklawn’s new schedule pushes its start date two weeks later than normal and end date three weeks later than normal, meaning dates for the Hot Springs, Ark., oval will conflict, or further conflict, with venues that normally receive its horses following the meet’s conclusion.
“Frankly, it’s all about the weather,” said Oaklawn President Louis Cella, whose family has owned Oaklawn for more than a century. “We wanted to make sure that was right for the city of Hot Springs. This was not just a one-dimensional decision, just for Oaklawn. This is for our horsemen. We hear it all the time over the years. Can we get out of January?”
Oaklawn was scheduled to race 57 days this year, but it lost two dates in January to winter weather. Over the last decade, Oaklawn has lost 14 days in January due to winter weather.
“I love it,” trainer Mac Robertson said of the new schedule. “I hate January racing. January is just a hard month to train in Arkansas. Now, they’ll even get better horses coming in.”
Cella said the new schedule, which was endorsed by the Arkansas division of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, had been discussed for “every bit of three years,” adding his late father, Charles, was aware of the talks. Charles Cella, known for being fiercely independent, was Oaklawn’s president from 1968 until his death in December.
Louis Cella said talk of the new dates began to intensify last summer. But word of a potential change didn’t begin to leak out until late March.
“It has been a secret, and we tried to keep it internally,” Cella said. “However, there are no secrets at a racetrack. I was walking through the grandstand last week and I had two fans come up to me, slapping me on the back, congratulating me with the new schedule.”
Asked if the new dates open the possibility of installing a turf course or reviving 2-year-old racing for the first time since the 1970s, Cella said, “No and No.”
“But I never want to cut it off and say ‘No,’ definitively,” Cella said. “But that’s not on the radar. That’s not something we’ve discussed, nor is this a decision that we’ve made in anticipation of that.”
David Longinotti, Oaklawn’s director of racing, said the new schedule will not change the placement of the Arkansas Derby, which will continue to be run three weeks before the Kentucky Derby, or the normal Thursday-Sunday racing format.
Oaklawn has run the Arkansas Derby three weeks before the Kentucky Derby every year since 1996. It had previously been two weeks before the Run for the Roses. Now, Oaklawn’s 2019 season will end on Kentucky Derby Day.
At this time, Longinotti said he doesn’t envision any plans to alter the 3-year-old stakes schedule for males or females.
“My guess is, if I were a gambling man, I’d probably put the Smarty Jones (Stakes, G3) on opening day, and then progress from there with our 3-year-old series,” Longinotti said. “We still have 57 days to cover. We’ve got one more weekend to cover than we did this year, 15 weekends instead of 14. Lots of meetings between Sunday and probably late June and early July.”
“This is going to be great for racing and great for Arkansas,” Arkansas Racing Commission Chairman Alex Lieblong said. “I applaud Mr. Cella and Oaklawn for thinking outside the box. This is proof again of their commitment to quality racing.”
Arkansas Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association Board (HBPA) members agreed.
“We are essentially trading January race days, when there is always the chance of cancellation due to weather, for April race dates, when Arkansas weather is at its finest,” said board member Bill Walmsley, who has served as national president of the organization. “The later closing should be an additional enticement to the top racing stables to come to Arkansas, and continuing to race following the Arkansas Derby will keep the excitement for racing going another three weeks.”
Linda Gaston, President of the Arkansas HBPA Chapter, said the shift will create more exciting days of racing.
“This makes all the sense in the world,” she said. “Oaklawn is one of the top tracks in America with some of the richest purses. It stands to reason that showcasing racing in the best possible weather will benefit the entire program. Our board supported this plan unanimously.”
The change to the racing calendar will also have an impact on the economy for Hot Springs and Central Arkansas, according to Gary Troutman, President of the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce and Metro Partnership.
“Oaklawn has always been one of the pillars of our economy,” Troutman said. “This change to the racing schedule will greatly enhance our local businesses that rely on racing fans coming to town.”
Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs, agreed. “Oaklawn continuing to race after the Arkansas Derby should be a major bonus to the tourism business in our area,” he said. “The weather is always better in April and May than it is in early January, and that will mean larger crowds at Oaklawn. This means more visitors at our hotels and restaurants, so it’s a win-win.”
Oaklawn will maintain its regular Thursday—Sunday schedule. In addition, it will race Presidents’ Day, Feb. 18. The Arkansas Derby, which has become one of the most productive Triple Crown prep races over the last 15 years, will be run April 13.
“Arkansas Derby Day will still be the pinnacle of the season,” Cella said. “But now, live racing at Oaklawn will also be part of the Kentucky Derby experience three weeks later, when our racing fans will be able to cheer on the horses representing them in Louisville.”
Oaklawn has never hesitated to try new things. In the 1970s, Oaklawn founded the Racing Festival of the South, whose multi-stakes card format has been copied by numerous racetracks. In the ’90s, Oaklawn was the first track to implement full-card commingled simulcasting, which is now a staple around the world. At the turn of the 21st century, Oaklawn created Instant Racing, which eventually led to the creation of Electric Games of Skill and 18 consecutive seasons of purse increases.
Based on traditional dates of other tracks, Oaklawn’s new schedule means it will overlap with Keeneland‘s entire spring meet, the first week of Churchill Downs, and a handful of days at Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie and Prairie Meadows.
Trainer Will VanMeter has wintered at Oaklawn every year since going out on his own in 2013, but he also has strong ties to Keeneland.
VanMeter grew up in Lexington—his father Tom is a prominent Kentucky sales consigner and equine veterinarian—and has permanent stabling in Keeneland’s Rice Road barn area.
“We had to beg, borrow, and steal just to get a foothold there,” said VanMeter, a former assistant under Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. “We don’t want to lose it.”
VanMeter said it will be difficult to predict how things will shake out until the new schedule is run for the first time.
“I think it’s going to affect everybody on an individual basis because every individual trainer, owner, (and) jockey have different goals, different desires to compete at different jurisdictions,” VanMeter said. “Us personally, Keeneland and Oaklawn are the two places that we want to compete and have a presence at. We’re going to find a way to satisfy both those desires.”
VanMeter’s biggest client is Arkansas lumberman John Ed Anthony, who has campaigned Eclipse Award winners Temperence Hill, Vanlandingham, and Prairie Bayou. VanMeter is scheduled to receive his first horse for another prominent Arkansas owner, Frank Fletcher, when the Oaklawn meeting ends Saturday.
“I think the future of racing is very strong in both places,” VanMeter said. “We want to grow our business through people that want to compete at Oaklawn and people that want to compete at Keeneland. We’re going to find a way to make it work.”