1. The American Pharoah statue welcomes fans
The day before the live meet opened, this statue by artist James Peniston was revealed. It greets fans at Oaklawn’s redesigned entrance. The statue commemorates American Pharoah’s 3-year-old season, which began with a victory in Oaklawn’s 2015 Rebel Stakes. Pharoah returned four weeks later to capture the Arkansas Derby, and then he became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. The statue is a top photo-op spot at Oaklawn Park.
2. Leadership torch passed from father to son
On Dec. 6, 2017, Charles Cella, who was president of Oaklawn since 1968, passed away. Cella was the driving force behind building up the track and its 3-year-old program. He was also a prominent participant as an owner.
Louis Cella, Charles’s son and Oaklawn’s new president, carries on the 113-year family tradition that began when their great-uncle and great-grandfather formed the Oaklawn Jockey Club in 1904.
“It is truly an honor to follow in the footsteps of my father and grandfather,” Louis Cella said. “Racing has been part of the Cella family DNA for generations, and we are committed to keeping Oaklawn one of the premier racetracks in the country for generations to come.”
3. New faces spend the season in Hot Springs
Two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill brought a string of horses to Oaklawn, and Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens moved his tack and his family to Hot Springs, Ark. for 2018. Both personalities were house favorites, and their horses were bet down nearly every time they appeared on the program.
“We absolutely loved our first full season at Oaklawn. It’s evident the track is doing something right. Racing is thriving at Oaklawn. Stands are full. People are happy to go to the track for work and for fun,” Angie Stevens said. “Hot Springs reminds me of Saratoga [Springs, N.Y.] in some ways. The historic downtown is so charming. There is a lot to do with kids. And don’t even get me started on restaurants. I can’t believe the quality and quantity of the restaurants for such a small town. We can’t say enough good things about Oaklawn and cannot wait to be back next year!”
4. St. Patrick’s Day draws all types of celebrities
The 58th running of the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, the track’s second-most well-attended race day, coincided with the World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade, an event that annually draws more than 30,000 people to Hot Springs. In addition to seeing superstar horses on the Derby trail in Hot Springs, the parade drew the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders; Jon Heder, who gained a following playing “Napoleon Dynamite”; and Joey Fatone of *NSYNC. An eight-horse hitch of Budweiser Clydesdales harnessed to the iconic red beer wagon came to Oaklawn and the parade.
5. Magnum Moon wins the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby
The 3-year-old will try to become the fourth horse to win Oaklawn’s Rebel Sakes, Arkansas Derby, and Kentucky Derby. If he can accomplish this feat, he will follow Sunny’s Halo (1983), Smarty Jones (2004) and American Pharaoah (2015). The undefeated colt tops the Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard with 150 points. As he crossed the finish line in the Arkansas Derby, track announcer Vic Stauffer said, “Get ready, Kentucky, there’s a bad moon on the rise!”
6. Santana and Asmussen dominate
Ricardo Santana Jr., 25, captured the leading rider title for the 6th straight year with 69 victories. He recorded his 1,000th career North American victory two days before the meet concluded. Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen captured his ninth Oaklawn title with 44 wins. Asmussen is approaching 8,000 career North American victories and ranks second all time among North American trainers by wins.
7. Oaklawn reveals new schedule for 2019
Oaklawn has traditionally concluded its meet with the Arkansas Derby. In 2019, Oaklawn will open Friday, Jan. 25, two weeks later than the 2018 start date. The season will run through Kentucky Derby Saturday, May 4, three weeks after the $1 million Arkansas Derby. Over the last decade, Oaklawn has lost a total of 14 days in January due to weather.
The quality of our program is calling on us to present racing in the most favorable weather conditions,” Oaklawn President Louis Cella said. “There is nowhere in America more beautiful for great racing than Arkansas in the spring.”