As boutique meets go, Oaklawn a delight

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

January 6th, 2015

Boutique meets like Saratoga, Del Mar, and Keeneland are among the most popular with spectators and horseplayers alike, and Oaklawn Park's 57-day meet, which begins Friday, will be eagerly anticipated in many quarters.

Fueled by the success of their Instant Racing operation, Oaklawn will again offer a record purse structure, which last summer was projected at $23.5 million. If recent years are any indication, expect that number to rise multiple times during the course of the meet.

With huge purses -- $60,000 maiden special weights and $65,000 open allowances to start -- comes large fields, and Oaklawn officials reported in November that there were 2,800 requests for the track's 1,500 stalls. The average field size on Friday's opening day program is more than 10.

Oaklawn continues to attract on-track crowds most courses could only dream about in the modern era. Saturday attendances of 20,000 to 30,000 are common when the weather is nice, and the typical Arkansas Derby Day crowd of more than 60,000 is exceeded elsewhere by only a handful of major race days the rest of the year. Track officials announced just before Christmas that general admission charges would be waived during the 2015 meet.

Since 2004, Oaklawn's three major Triple Crown preps -- the Southwest, Rebel, and Arkansas Derby -- have been won or contested by champions and/or classic winners Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Lawyer Ron, Curlin, Summer Bird, Super Saver, Lookin at Lucky, and Will Take Charge. The combined purses of all three races will exceed $2 million this year.

The three-year-old filly program will get a boost this spring with the presence of Take Charge Brandi, the presumptive two-year-old filly champion of 2014 trained by D. Wayne Lukas. It wasn't so long ago when such standouts like Eight Belles, Rachel Alexandra, and Blind Luck all captured the meet's premier divisional race, the Fantasy.

Another meet highlight is always the Apple Blossom Handicap, held on the penultimate day of the "Racing Festival of the South." Azeri and Zenyatta both won multiple renewals, and fellow female Horse of the Year Havre de Grace was victorious in 2011. Probable champion Close Hatches defeated her subsequent Spinster conqueror, and Breeders' Cup Distaff runner-up, Don't Tell Sophia in last year's edition.

In some respects, Oaklawn is American Thoroughbred racing at its purest. It is the most significant track in the country with no turf racing. Sprint races are either 5 1/2 furlongs or six furlongs, and routes other than one mile, 1 1/16 miles or 1 1/8 miles are rare. The horseplayers' diet is steady, yet simple.

On a personal note, I've always found Oaklawn's programs generally well-balanced with a favorable mix of starter allowances, maiden special weights, open claiming, allowances, and stakes. There is a state-bred program in place, of course, but it is far less intrusive than in most places.

It has been more than two decades since my last visit to Oaklawn. The weather was a little damp, but the enthusiasm of the large crowd (enhanced that day by the Arkansas Razorbacks' Elite Eight win en route to their national basketball championship) was great. Oaklawn put on a good show.

I'm hoping it won't be much longer before I make my long-awaited return to Hot Springs. In the meantime, it will be my main track of focus in the coming months and I'll occasionally provide some thoughts on the events there in this space.

(Photo: Coady Photography)