REBEL STAKES SPLITS INTO TWO DIVISIONS

As expected, one of Oaklawn’s signature races for 3-year-olds was divided into two divisions after 19 horses were entered Wednesday morning for Saturday’s Rebel Stakes at 1 1/16 miles, the final major local prep for the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) April 13. The split means the Rebel, originally a $1 million race, will be worth $1.5 million overall, with each division offering $750,000 and 63.75 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby to the top four finishers (37.5, 15, 7.5 and 3.75).

Oaklawn President Louis Cella said March 6 the track was prepared to split the Rebel to accommodate Southern California horsemen impacted by the move, The Rebel was originally scheduled to offer 85 points (50-20-10-5) to the top four finishers toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Derby.

Oaklawn hadn’t split one of its Kentucky Derby prep races since the Southwest Stakes (G3) in 2012. The 1 1/16-mile Southwest originally carried a purse of $250,000 that year, but it was split after 21 horses were entered. Each division was worth $250,000.

Churchill Downs has used a points system in designated races to help determine Kentucky Derby starting eligibility since 2013. Graded stakes earnings had previously been used.

 

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Oaklawn May Split Rebel Stakes to Help Horsemen

In an unprecedented move, the Oaklawn Jockey Club announced today [March 6, 2019] that it stands ready to split the $1 million Rebel Stakes on Saturday, March 16.

The announcement came just hours after Santa Anita racetrack in California announced it is suspending racing indefinitely due to poor weather and track conditions. The Santa Anita suspension has the potential to upend traditional West Coast prep races for the Kentucky Derby.

If the Rebel is split, each division will carry a purse of $750,000, and each division will offer 63.75 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby.

In making the announcement, Oaklawn President Louis Cella said he hopes the situation in California resolves itself quickly, precluding any reason to split the Rebel. “But if that is not the case, Oaklawn stands ready to help horsemen around the country,” said Cella.

Cella added, “From a financial standpoint, splitting the race makes no sense whatsoever. If we split it, it will be strictly on the basis of sportsmanship and what is best for the sport and best for top three year olds trying to get to Kentucky.”

Cella said both divisions of the Rebel would need to attract a minimum of ten runners in order to justify the split.

According to Oaklawn general manager Wayne Smith, track officials were on the phone all day Wednesday with horsemen around the country. “Plus we reached out to Arkansas Racing Chairman Alex Lieblong and to Bill Walmsley, president of the Arkansas division of the HBPA. Both gentlemen were completely supportive of our offer.”

The deadline for nominating to the Rebel Stakes was to have been midnight, March 7. But, Smith said the deadline is going to be pushed back to midnight, Friday, March 8.

If the Rebel is split, it will be first time in American racing history for a million dollar race to be split and run in two divisions.

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OAKLAWN INCREASES PURSES OF FIVE STAKES

Oaklawn is increasing the purses of five stakes and adding a stakes to the April 14 card just two weeks after announcing a significant bump to overnight purses.

Four stakes – the March 16 Essex Handicap, April 14 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1), May 3 Oaklawn Mile and May 4 Oaklawn Invitational – have each been bumped $50,000, while the April 13 Count Fleet Handicap (G3), which was won last year by Breeders’ Cup Sprint runner-up Whitmore, has been increased by $100,000 to $500,000.

Additionally, the $150,000 Fifth Season Stakes, which was not originally on the 2019 stakes schedule, has been brought back as a prep for the $250,000 Oaklawn Mile and will share the card with the $750,000 Apple Blossom April 14, the final day of the Racing Festival of the South. The $500,000 Fantasy Stakes (G3) kicks off the Racing Festival April 12 and the Count Fleet is part of the supporting card April 13 featuring the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) and $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2).

“We couldn’t be any more excited about how the 2019 racing season has started and for the future of our racing program,” Oaklawn’s President Louis Cella said. “We have seen tremendous support for our races from around the country and locally, we’ve had great crowds that are staying after the races and enjoying our gaming area afterwards. And, there’s still over two months of racing remaining for people to enjoy one of the best entertainment destinations in the region.”

The $350,000 Essex Handicap for 4-year-olds and older is part of a rich card Saturday, March 16 that also includes the $350,000 Azeri Stakes (G2) for older fillies and mares and the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) for 3-year-olds on the Triple Crown trail. The $250,000 Oaklawn Mile and $300,000 Oaklawn Invitational, which offers an automatic berth to the Preakness Stakes (G1) May 18, highlight the final two days of the 2019 season, May 3 and May 4, respectively.

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OAKLAWN INCREASES ALL OVERNIGHT PURSES

The track where purses have been steadily rising for 11 straight years is at it again. Oaklawn is increasing all overnight purses, some as much as $6,000, retroactive to the Thursday, Feb. 14 card, which was drawn last Friday.

Maiden special weights and open allowances are being bumped $6,000 and are now $83,000 and $87,000, respectively. Purses for all claiming races with a claiming price of $16,000 or greater, maiden claiming races with a claiming price of $20,000 or greater and starter allowances are being increased by $3,000. All other races are being increased by $2,000.

“We’re off to a fantastic start because the fans have responded to great weather and great racing,” President Louis Cella said. “We couldn’t be more thrilled with the response we’ve gotten in support of our new race dates. We opened later and had one of the best opening weekends in 10 years.

“We are mindful of the fact that bigger purses bring in the best horses and human athletes, which in turns brings out the fans. Our goal is to have the richest and most competitive racing product in the country between January and early May.”

The purse increase comes at the start of a five-day race week highlighted by a special Monday card in celebration of Presidents’ Day. The Monday card features the $200,000 Bayakoa Stakes (G3) for older fillies and mares, the $500,000 Razorback Handicap (G3) for older horses and the $500,000 Southwest Stakes (G3), the second of four races in Oaklawn’s rich series for 3-year-olds culminating with the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1).

“I think from a horsemen’s perspective this shows that the late start has been successful and was a wise decision,” Arkansas H.B.P.A. President Bill Walmsley said. “The horsemen are already reaping the benefits in the form of this purse increase so quickly in the season. It is both unexpected and appreciated.”

“It’s fantastic,” said Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito, who is spending his first winter in Hot Springs. “I’ve been praising the Cella family and their organization. They have a great organization and great people who work for them. And, now I think the horsemen are rallying around them. It’s a testament to how well you can work together in this business. It’s a wonderful thing.”

Oaklawn’s 2019 live meet continues through Saturday, May 4.

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Louisiana Brothers Calvin, Cecil Borel Planning Oaklawn Comeback In 2019

Calvin Borel

Hall of Fame jockey Calvin Borel was getting on horses Monday morning at Oaklawn in preparation for the 2019 meeting that begins Jan. 25.

A fixture in Hot Springs, Borel, 52, was Oaklawn’s leading rider in 1995 and 2001, but didn’t ride at the 2018 meeting, opting to winter at Fair Grounds because of business and family reasons.

“Good to be back,” Borel said after breezing a horse for trainer Gary Thomas, a longtime client. “Feel good. I had a good summer. Can’t wait.”

Borel has 952 career victories at Oaklawn, with his first coming aboard Twice Around in the Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G2) in 1989. Twice Around also marked the first training victory in Hot Springs for Borel’s older brother, Cecil, who is planning a comeback at the 2019 meeting, the jockey said.

Cecil Borel, who has 105 career Oaklawn victories, including eight stakes, retired in 2014.

“He’ll be here in a couple of weeks,” Calvin Borel said. “He’s going to try and get a couple of horses and run here.”

Borel said his brother has spent the last four years watching his grandchildren grow up and fishing.

“He got tired of sitting around,” Borel said. “Just a matter of time. He hasn’t got anything else to do.”

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OAKLAWN ANNOUNCES $100 MILLION-PLUS EXPANSION WITH CONSTRUCTION OF HIGH-RISE HOTEL, EVENT CENTER AND EXPANDED GAMING AREA

NOVEMBER 19, 2018

 

Oaklawn Racing and Gaming today announced plans to build an expansion project in excess of $100 million that includes the construction of a high-rise hotel, multi-purpose event center, a larger gaming area, and additional on-site parking.

The project is one of the largest hospitality investments in the history of Arkansas.

“This historic announcement represents a new chapter in the rich 114-year history of Oaklawn,” said Louis Cella, president of Oaklawn Jockey Club. “As we enhance the entertainment experience for our customers, we will also further elevate thoroughbred racing and help make Arkansas and Hot Springs even stronger regional tourism destinations.”

The yet-to-be-named hotel will be seven stories with 200 rooms, including two presidential suites. Amenities will include an outdoor swimming pool, a luxury spa, fitness center and restaurant.

“The hotel will offer a unique vantage point for our patrons in that it will overlook the track. Imagine the spectacular view as the horses are heading down the stretch,” said Cella. “Our goal is to achieve 4-star status.”

Adjacent to the hotel will be a 14,000 square-foot multi-purpose events center that will accommodate up to 1,500 people for various events such as concerts, meetings, banquets and weddings.

The project also includes the addition of approximately 28,000 square feet of gaming space and significantly expanded parking.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson said the Oaklawn expansion will be monumental.

“The state of Arkansas is grateful to Louis and his family for their commitment to growing their business right here at home,” said Gov. Hutchinson. “This project, which will be financed exclusively with private funds, not only represents one of, if not the largest, tourism related expansion projects in our history, it will also rank among the state’s largest economic development projects in 2019.”

Kane Webb, director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, says the Oaklawn expansion will create more success stories for Arkansas’ thriving tourism industry.

“Hot Springs is already one of the top tourism destinations in the South,” said Webb. “This expansion will thrust Hot Springs into the category of the nation’s elite vacation and recreation locations.”

Cella says the development will create new partnership opportunities with the city of Hot Springs in that marketing efforts will be designed to complement those of the city’s. He says while various on-site amenities will be offered, Oaklawn will want guests to enjoy all that Hot Springs has to offer including Hot Springs National Park, lakes, hiking and biking trails, museums, restaurants, shopping and more.

Steve Arrison, CEO of the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, says the events center and hotel rooms will be beneficial to Hot Springs and Arkansas.

“Oaklawn’s project will allow Hot Springs to attract more and larger meetings and conventions,” said Arrison. “This creates exciting opportunities for Hot Springs tourism.”

An expansion project of this magnitude, Cella says, requires years of planning and the development of infrastructure.

“While one may assume that today’s announcement comes in response to the passage of Issue 4 on November 6, we actually began planning for this during our last expansion in 2014,” said Cella. “Our goal then, as it is now, is to use a quality gaming experience to enhance racing and help attract even more great champions to Arkansas such as Smarty Jones, Zenyatta, and American Pharoah.”

Construction on the project will begin in May immediately following completion of the 2019 racing season. The target completion date for the gaming expansion is January 2020 with the hotel and event center to be completed in late 2020.

As it has for two previous Oaklawn projects, HBG Design of Memphis is the architectural firm for this new expansion.

Flintco Construction, with an Arkansas headquarters located in Springdale, is the contractor on the project. The company estimates that as many as 2,300 jobs will be created during the construction phase.

“The Cellas helped found Oaklawn in the early 1900’s,” said Wayne Smith, general manager of Oaklawn. “As they have for more than a century, the family continues to make significant investments in Arkansas. This will be the third major project at Oaklawn since 2008.”

This major expansion represents the second significant announcement at Oaklawn since Louis Cella succeeded his late father, Charles, as president of Oaklawn Jockey Club last December.

In April of this year, Oaklawn announced it will shift its racing season later in the calendar and for the first time will continue racing into May. It’s the biggest change in the traditional Oaklawn racing schedule since World War II.

Expansion Project Fact Sheet

About the project:

  • Oaklawn is investing in excess of $100 million to further elevate thoroughbred racing and make Oaklawn and Hot Springs an even stronger regional tourism destination.
  • The Oaklawn expansion will be one of the largest hospitality investments in the history of Arkansas.
  • This is a private investment. No public dollars are being used.
  • The project will focus on five main areas:
    • Enhanced racing experience
    • 4-star hotel and spa
    • Multi-purpose event center
    • Expanded gaming area
    • Additional on-site parking
    • This expansion project has been in the planning stages since 2014.
    • This will be Oaklawn’s third major construction project since 2008.

About the hotel/multi-purpose event center:

  • The hotel will be 7 stories tall with 200 luxury rooms, including two presidential suites.
  • The goal is for the hotel to achieve 4-star status.
  • The hotel will offer patrons a unique vantage point in that it will overlook the racetrack on one side with a beautiful view of the lakes and mountains on the other.
  • Room rates will be competitive with other properties of this quality.
  • The hotel will include:
    • outdoor swimming pool
    • luxury spa
    • fitness center
    • restaurant
    • multi-purpose event center
    • individual meeting rooms
    • The 14,000 square-foot multi-purpose event center will accommodate up to 1,500 people for events ranging from concerts, to meetings, to banquets, to weddings.
    • Oaklawn is working with the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission to ensure that the multi-purpose event center compliments efforts of the Hot Springs convention center and arena. The partnership will help attract more and larger meetings and conventions to the city.
    • The project includes expanded on-site parking to accommodate more vehicles.
    • A shuttle service will be available to transport patrons from their vehicles to the facility.  Shuttle stops will be strategically located throughout the parking areas.

About the gaming expansion:

  • The new expansion will add approximately 28,000 square-feet of gaming space.
  • The enhanced gaming experience will allow Oaklawn to provide larger purses to help attract the top thoroughbreds joining a long line of champions such as Smarty Jones, Zenyatta and American Pharoah.

About the construction:

  • HBG Design of Memphis is the architectural firm on the project. This will represent the firm’s third expansion design for Oaklawn.
  • Flintco Construction, with Arkansas headquarters located in Springdale, is the contractor on the project. Flintco has managed major construction projects all over Arkansas.
  • Construction will begin in May, immediately following the completion of the 2019 racing season.
  • Target completion dates:
    • Gaming expansion – January 2020
    • Hotel and multi-purpose event center – Late 2020

About economic impact:

  • Oaklawn’s reputation as a year-round tourism destination will be enhanced. Hotel guests will have easy access to Hot Springs National Park, area lakes, hiking and biking trails, museums, amusement parks, and restaurants representing a significant economic impact to the city of Hot Springs and the state of Arkansas.
  • Flintco estimates that as many as 2,300 construction jobs will be created during the construction phase.
  • Though a specific number is still under consideration, Oaklawn anticipates several hundred additional jobs will be created in expanded areas.

About the Oaklawn principals:

  • Louis Cella, president of Oaklawn Jockey Club, succeeded his late father, Charles, in December 2017. The Cella family were among the founding partners in Oaklawn in the early 1900s. Louis is a graduate of the University of Arkansas School of Law, past Chairman of the Arkansas Cancer Research Center Foundation, Director of the UAMS Foundation Fund Board and Director of the Myeloma Institute. Louis’ wife, Rochelle Dean, is from England, Arkansas.
  • Wayne Smith, general manager of Oaklawn, joined the racetrack in 2016 with extensive experience in working with resort properties around the world for ITT-Sheraton, MGM Grand and Caesar’s Entertainment.  He also worked for Empire City Racing and Gaming in New York and Penn Gaming in Illinois.
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Election Aftermath Mixed for Thoroughbred Interests

By T. D. Thornton

In the aftermath of Election Day, the gambling landscape shifted significantly overnight in three states. But the results are mixed in terms of how the measures will affect Thoroughbred horse racing.

In Arkansas, Oaklawn Park won the right to add full casino gaming and sports betting to its existing wagering menu of pari-mutuels and electronic gaming. The vote percentage was 54-46.

In Idaho, historical horse racing (HHR) video gaming at tracks was defeated by a 53-47 margin, putting the state’s already tenuous Thoroughbred future in even more of an endangered flux.

Florida voters banned greyhound racing by a 69-31 margin, with a 2020 sunset date but a provision to keep other forms of gaming at those tracks.

A separate Florida measure that passed by a 71-29 margin mandates that any future changes to casino gambling have to be approved through statewide citizen-initiated ballot measures, and not the Legislature.

All tallies in this story cited are listed in rounded percentages, and are according to results posted as of 2 p.m. Wednesday on Ballotpedia.com.

Arkansas

In Arkansas, the passage of Issue 4 amended the Arkansas Constitution to grant four casino licenses in specified locations. Oaklawn in Hot Springs and the Southland greyhound/gaming venue in West Memphis were granted “automatic licenses” for expansions “at or adjacent to” their existing operations. Both tracks already offer electronic games of skill under a 2005 state law.

Additionally, one casino license will be up for bid in both Pope County and Jefferson County.

As part of the Arkansas measure, “casino gaming shall also be defined to include accepting wagers on sporting events.”

The ballot initiative also included a tax revenue distribution plan that mandates “17.5% to the Arkansas Racing Commission for deposit into the Arkansas Racing Commission Purse and Awards Fund to be used only for purses for live horse racing and greyhound racing by Oaklawn and Southland.”

Idaho

The defeated Proposition 1 was designed to once again legalize HHR video terminals at tracks in Idaho, where seven fairs circuit tracks raced short meets in 2018. The measure would have granted HHR gaming rights to any track that cards eight calendar dates annually, and passage would almost certainly have meant the re-opening of Les Bois Park, formerly Idaho’s only commercial track.

Idaho had briefly legalized HHR in 2013 but the law was repealed in 2015. When the state pulled the plug on HHR, Les Bois, which was one of three locations that had the machines, shut down. Les Bois spent heavily to support Proposition 1, and reportedly had several hundred HHR machines still on the property ready to resume operation, along with live racing.

Florida

Florida’s two approved ballot measures might end up raising more questions than they answered in an already confusing state for gambling.

The Amendment 13 ban on dog racing actually had the support of some of the state’s 11 greyhound track operators, who saw it as a de facto way of attaining “decoupling” from less-profitable pari-mutuels while retaining lucrative gaming rights.

Some “What happens next?” scenarios could include horse tracks angling for similar decoupling rights based on this precedent. And with greyhound racing mandated to end, animal rights activists might now more closely focus on horse racing.

Carey Theil, the executive director of GREY2K USA, one of the leading backers of the ban, told the Orlando Sentinel that the vote appears to mean the greyhound industry will likely be “swept away in the night” and that “the historical consequences of this are incredibly significant.”

Amendment 3, which took control of future casino gambling decisions out of the hands of the Legislature, was proposed by Voters in Charge, a political committee largely financed by the tourism-centric Walt Disney Co. and the Seminole Tribe, which operates existing gaming facilities. According to published reports, that committee spent more than $31 million on the effort to transfer future casino decisions to voters.

According to a post-vote analysis in the Tampa Bay Times, “While the amendment, in theory, gives voters the power to expand gambling, it could actually make the process more difficult. Changing anything by voter decision is a long process, and would therefore keep competition low for the Seminole Tribe and ensure a more ‘family friendly’ tourism environment here, to Disney’s benefit.”

The Miami Herald recapped the vote this way: “Opponents to the amendment—like NFL teams, online betting sites like FanDuel and DraftKings and dog and horse tracks—have argued that it is unclear what affect the initiative would have on previously authorized gambling sites across the state.”

United States Congress

Two U.S. Representatives in positions to have an impact on Thoroughbred racing both won re-election bids Nov. 6.

Andy Barr (R-KY) and Paul Tonko (D-NY) are co-chairs of the Congressional Horse Caucus. They are also co-sponsors of HR 2651, the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2017, which was first introduced in a different form in 2015. Its revised version has not had any legislative action since a June 22 subcommittee hearing.

Barr won by a 51-48 margin. Tonko’s winning margin was 68-32.

Lexington Mayor

Linda Gorton bested Ronnie Bastin by a 63-37 margin in the Lexington, Kentucky, mayoral race.

In a profile published the week prior to the election, Gorton told TDN that “I have a long history of working with the equine industry here. I know many of the horse farm owners and managers. I understand their concerns…. That’s important for me, to have people understand that I have worked with this industry for many, many years, and have great experience in doing that.”

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Jed Doro Named Director of Racing at Oaklawn

October 6, 2018

Oaklawn announced today the hiring of Jerome “Jed” Doro as Director of Racing. Jed will start the week of September 24.

Doro comes to Oaklawn from Delaware Park where he has spent the last 10 years. He was named that track’s Racing Secretary in 2014 after serving as Assistant Racing Secretary to Pat Pope, who is also Oaklawn’s longtime Racing Secretary. Doro had previously assisted Pope with Oaklawn condition books and he served as Assistant Director of Racing during the 2014 race season. Doro, who has several family members in racing, got his start working as a hot walker in 1998 in the barn of trainer Tony Dutrow. His first job in a racing office came at Colonial Downs and he held a variety of positions at the Maryland Jockey Club including claims clerk and paddock judge before moving to Delaware Park.

“We’re delighted to have Jed and welcome him back as a member of the Oaklawn family,” General Manager Wayne Smith said. “Jed’s background and experience will be a great addition as we continue to grow racing at Oaklawn. His hiring continues to strengthen an already great racing team. We couldn’t be more excited about our program as we move closer to racing in 2019. Remember, Stay Until May!”

“I couldn’t be more thrilled about getting back to Hot Springs and reacquainting myself with the track and horsemen,” Doro said. “I really enjoyed my time there in 2014 and it’s amazing how much the program has grown over the last few years. I’m looking forward to helping to continue that growth into the future. Oaklawn is one of the top racetracks in the country and one that is steeped in tradition. I’m honored to be part of the team.”

Doro and his wife, Tiffany, have two daughters, Dulaney and Baden.

The 2019 live season at Oaklawn begins Friday, Jan. 25 and runs through Saturday, May 4.

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Oaklawn Posts Double-Digit Handle Increase Behind Record Prep Days

Led by record-setting GI Arkansas Derby and GII Rebel S. days, Oaklawn Park reported an 11% increase in total handle during its recently-concluded 2018 season.

An estimated crowd of 64,500 turned out Apr. 14 to watch undefeated ‘TDN Rising Star’ Magnum Moon (Malibu Moon) capture the GI Arkansas Derby, contributing to a total handle of $16,159,771 on the 12-race card, a figure that broke the previous single-day record of $15,133,537 set on Arkansas Derby day in 2000. Four weeks earlier, 37,500 saw Magnum Moon capture the Rebel on a day that handled $10,771,984, the highest non-Arkansas Derby Day yield in the 114-year history of the track.

“Despite missing two days due to weather in January and 16 inches of rain in February, we are extremely excited to have ended the meet with a double-digit increase in handle,” General Manager Wayne Smith said. “It’s a testament to the great product we were able to put on the track this season. I want to thank the owners, trainers and jockeys who put on the greatest show in racing. I also want to thank our entire management team and staff for such an incredible season. Most of all, a huge thank you goes out to our fans for their continued support.”

The Hot Springs oval raced 55 of 57 days for total handle of $209,695,403. The average total daily handle of $3,812,644 was up 15% over 2017. Export handle also saw the big gains during the 2018 season, growing by 15% to $175,125,149 despite racing two fewer days than 2017.

Oaklawn will start a new tradition in 2019 when it opens Friday, Jan. 25 and continues its season through Saturday, May 3, marking the first time that the track has raced after Arkansas Derby Day. The 2019 Arkansas Derby will be run Saturday, Apr. 13.

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Oaklawn Park to Extend 2019 Meet Three Weeks

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.”

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