Oaklawn Park begins its 115th season on Friday with a momentum growing from two major announcements.
Last April, the track introduced a new schedule, dubbed “Stay Until May.” In the past, Oaklawn concluded its meet with the $1 million Arkansas Derby in mid-April. This year, the season will run three additional weeks through Saturday, May 4, Kentucky Derby day.
“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.”
This new schedule adds two stakes races and more open infield days to the 57-day meet. Purses increased for the 11th consecutive year, including a boost to the Rebel Stakes purse, making it a $1 million race. This makes Oaklawn the only track offering two $1 million Kentucky Derby prep races. The Rebel will run March 16, and the Arkansas Derby on April 13.
“The Rebel Stakes has become a significant prep in its own right and warrants a one-million dollar purse with runners like Smarty Jones, Lookin at Lucky, Curlin, Oxbow, Will Take Charge, American Pharoah and Creator,” Cella said. “We’re extremely proud to offer the richest and most proven path to the Triple Crown.”
Oaklawn has the highest purse distribution at this time of year in the United States. Trainers who are vying for over $30 million to be awarded throughout the season include Hall of Famers Steve Asmussen and D. Wayne Lukas, who are Oaklawn regulars. This year, fellow Hall of Famer Nick Zito joins them.
“It’s a big change. We went to Florida for 30, 35 years,” Zito said. “I should have probably went a few years ago. I know a lot of people try to get in there. It’s very popular now. I love all those fans you can see in the grandstand.”
Jockeys are also following the money. Jersey Joe Bravo joins the jockey colony, and Oaklawn welcomes back Stewart Elliott. They will ride alongside six-time Oaklawn riding champion Ricardo Santana Jr., David Cabrera, Jon Court and David Cohen.
In November, Cella made his second major announcement in his first year as track president: at the conclusion of the 2019 season, Oaklawn will break ground on a $100 million expansion project. It includes a seven-story, 4-star racing-themed hotel with half of the rooms overlooking the track. It also provides an events center, spa and larger casino. This project has been in planning stages since 2014; however, recently Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment to issue Oaklawn and three other entities licenses for full-fledged casinos. Previously, Oaklawn offered electronic games of skill. The casino expansion is expected to open in January 2020 and the rest of the project is scheduled to open in January 2021.
“All of this translates into achieving our ultimate goals: Introducing more people to our sport and to continue growing our purses,” Cella said. “And helping our track in the heart of the Ouachita mountains become a beacon for all racing enthusiasts in the nation.”
Oaklawn completed smaller projects for the 2019 season, including a winner’s circle named for longtime jockey and steward Larry Snyder, new barns and replacing the entire track cushion (the top six to eight inches) with over 350 truckloads of dirt.
“The 2019 season looks to be a tremendous kick-off for Oaklawn’s future,” Cella said.