January 15, 2010

Have You Ever Been to Arkansas?

Who doesn’t love Opening Day? Full of anticipation and excitement, the launch of a new season promises everything good in racing. Today, my friends is Opening Day. Oaklawn Park kicks off a 54 day racing season with a nine-race card headlined by the Dixie Belle Stakes for three-year-old fillies going six furlongs. Oaklawn Park is nestled lovingly in the Ouachita Mountains of central Arkansas and located in the resort town of Hot Springs. In recent years, Oaklawn has become much more than a Winter diversion for Midwestern race fans. The quality of racing has been on a steady incline for years and 2010 could offer the best yet.

The meeting’s centerpiece and culmination is the Arkansas Derby, to be run on April 10 and this year it will be televised nationally on NBC. With a purse of a cool million, the Arkansas Derby is now the only Kentucky Derby prep worth seven figures and it boasts a brand new grade 1 status. Leading up to the Arkansas Derby, Oaklawn Park offers one of the finest long weeks of racing anywhere, beginning on Friday, April 2 with the Fantasy which has a purse increase up to $300,000 this year. After the Fantasy, the next eight days offer eight more stakes including the Oaklawn Handicap and the Apple Blossom. The Apple Blossom already has a lot of buzz connected to it with the possibility of who might be in the starting gate that year. I bet you can guess as to whom I speak. All told, you can see 30 stakes races during the three month season. Other highlights include the three-year-old series of the Smarty Jones on Monday, the Grade 3 Southwest on February 15, and the Grade 2 Rebel on March 13. On March 6, the Razorback and the Azeri offer the older chances a chance to win a graded stake in preparation for the Oaklawn Handicap or the Apple Blossom. On March 13 the Honeybee is run as a final prep for the Fantasy prep race.

A purse structure that is at its highest level in history has brought both quality and depth, and not only within the horses. Oaklawn continues to attract top horsepeople, and 2010 will be no exception. Two of them, I will have a close eye on, are the young trainer Tim Ice, who hopes to build on his breakout year of 2009, and Corey Nakatani who shifts his tack from Southern California for the first time in twenty years. While the excellent depth of the horses and people on the grounds make for high quality fields at all levels of races, it is the aforementioned stakes races that are most likely to attract the nations biggest stars. With the list of recent stars to run at Oaklawn Park, you can fully expect to see some of America’s best horses make an appearance.

Horses that have run at Oaklawn in the last six years alone include an honor roll to make most any other track envious. 2009 saw Rachel Alexandra inaugurate her season at Oaklawn with a big win in the Martha Washington, she returned to romp in the meet’s premier race for three-year-old fillies, the Fantasy, in a similar devastating performance. In 2008, it was the Power of Zenyatta on display, as the big mare rolled by the quality field of the Apple Blossom in her only career dirt race. Two-time Horse of the Year, Curlin, was the star of the season in 2007 as he appeared not once, but twice, collecting impressive scores in the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby. Eclipse Award winning Lawyer Ron was the man in 2006, and his time at the Arkansas oval resulted in three stakes wins in the Southwest, Rebel, and Arkansas Derby before returning the following year to take the Oaklawn Handicap. In 2005, Oaklawn Park was the Winter home for the wonderful racehorse Afleet Alex. His time in Hot Springs culminated with a runaway victory in the Arkansas Derby that may have been the most impressive ever seen in the major Kentucky Derby prep. America’s darling, Smarty Jones, used Oaklawn Park as his own personal road to Louisville and superstardom, when in 2004 he swept the Southwest, Rebel, and Arkansas Derby.

You get the idea, Oaklawn Park is the place to be. If you’ve never been to Arkansas and beautiful Oaklawn Park, why not make this year the year. Take it from me, you will not be disappointed. Personally, I have wonderful memories from going and I can not wait to get there again. The excitement begins today … today is Opening Day!


LDP said...

This is one of the track I want to visit most! It along with Gulfstream are probably the two main tracks for Triple Crown and Derby wins. Oaklawn is fantastic and I can't wait for all the stakes to start!

Brian Zipse said...

You did not have to wait long Dani...Shotgun Gulch won a very exciting edition of the Dixie Belle Stakes by a nose, which was good news for my wagering dollar!

ja.raymond said...

Ah, Oaklawn...
One of the coldest winters I ever had on the track!
...Having to find accomodations offgrounds as women were not allowed to stay on the backside.
..Working for one of the best trainers in the business, J Fires.
..Stabled across from a polite gentleman named D. W. Lukas, who went to the track every morning on a strikingly handsome red chestnut.
..Lady's Secret vs. Sefa's Beauty, left me shaking my head in disbelief.
...My first encounter with those gigantic clydesdales.
...A tornado that came WAY too close for comfort.
...Being in cahoots with a good friend for the ol' "Limberger on the radiator" prank on a coworker.
...Fires, battling it out for lead trainer, with 8 horses entered on the last day of the meet, but just losing out to Mott by two wins; with Steel Explosion setting a new record for a mile and six furlongs with a time of 2:58 and 4.
How I wish I could go back in time...

Thank you, Brian, for another time capsule!! :)

Brian Zipse said...

Thank you Jane...I love the memories!

Jennifer Cook said...

Hey, thanks for the props. The track was really strange and slow this weekend. That must have been what caused my disastrous betting streak. lol!