Spectacular Oaklawn Meet Closes, Exciting Expansion Looms

Oaklawn Park concluded another successful racing season on May 4, extending three weeks past its usual finale. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Oaklawn Park concluded its 2019 meet on Kentucky Derby day, three weeks after its traditional closing on Arkansas Derby day. In this groundbreaking season, the schedule change was one of many highlights.

Rebel, Rebel: The Rebel Stakes was split in two divisions to accommodate more contenders looking for a Kentucky Derby prep race while Santa Anita Park was temporarily closed. On a dazzling spring afternoon, 45,500 fans, a record attendance for this card, wagered an all-time Oaklawn record of $16.2 million. In the first division, local hero Long Range Toddy, owned by Willis Horton of Marshall, Ark., won by a neck over 2-5 favorite Improbable. Fox Hill FarmsOmaha Beach edged champion Game Winner in a photo to take the second division.

Omaha Beach (Coady Photography)

Rain drenches the Arkansas Derby: The Rebel winners and runner-up Improbable met head-to-head in the Arkansas Derby, the final major race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. Omaha Beach and Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith splashed to victory over Improbable and moved to second on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard.

Oaklawn-raced horses add to Kentucky Derby buzz: Following the Arkansas Derby, Smith had to make what he called the most difficult decision of his career: choosing a Kentucky Derby mount. He was also in the irons for Roadster’s victory in the Santa Anita Derby. He selected Omaha Beach, which contributed to the horse being named the morning-line Kentucky Derby favorite.

When Omaha Beach was scratched from the race due to a breathing problem, five other Oaklawn-raced horses remained in the field. Oaklawn fixture and Long Range Toddy’s pilot Jon Court, 58, made news and history by becoming the oldest jockey to run for the roses. In addition to Improbable and Game Winner, the other two Oaklawn-raced horses in the field were Kentucky Derby winner Country House, who finished third in the Arkansas Derby, and Cutting Humor, who finished seventh as the favorite in the Southwest Stakes.

M and M Racing shatters records: M and M Racing (Mike and Mickala Sisk) set single-season Oaklawn Park records for victories (61) and purse earnings ($1.7 million). David Lassiter set the previous wins record in 1974 with 48. Zayat Stables set the previous earnings record of $1.2 million in 2015, the year American Pharoah started his Triple Crown season at Oaklawn. This is M and M Racing’s second consecutive leading owner title at Oaklawn.

Battle for leading rider: David Cohen, who rides first call for M and M Racing, engaged perennial leading rider Ricardo Santana Jr. in a spirited duel for the 2019 title. Two days before the Oaklawn meet ended, Santana led 73-70. Santana missed the last two days at Oaklawn because he was named on several mounts at Churchill Downs. He rode in the Longines Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby and won three Grade 1 races: the La Troienne Stakes Presented by Inside Access from Chase on She’s a Julie; the Humana Distaff Stakes on Mia Mischief; and the Churchill Downs Stakes Presented by Twinspires.com on Mitole. Back at Oaklawn, Cohen captured the Oaklawn title on closing day with 75 wins. However, Santana almost doubled his purse earnings with $4.3 million. Santana’s main client is Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who won the Oaklawn training title for the 10th time in his career.  

Cohen was JockeyTalk360.com’s Comeback Jockey of the Year in 2018 after finishing with 114 victories. A leg injury in 2014 and the subsequent deaths of his father and sister derailed his career for approximately three years. Cohen rode again in late 2017 at Fair Grounds. He had four mounts there and two more at Delta Downs in advance of the 2018 Oaklawn meeting, where he finished third in the standings.

New stakes races: The track finished its first “Stay Until May” racing season with three new stakes races closing weekend: the Oaklawn Mile, the Arkansas Breeders’ Championship and the Oaklawn Invitational. The Oaklawn Invitational offered a free Preakness berth to the winner. Horses previously on the Kentucky Derby trail, including Harvey Wallbanger and Math Wizard, competed, and Laughing Fox, fourth in the Arkansas Derby, earned the win.

Name change: Mid-season, Oaklawn became known as Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort. Live craps and blackjack joined the casino in April, and sports betting will be added in the coming weeks. Construction on 28,000 square feet of additional gaming space is scheduled to start immediately, and the addition will be open before the 2020 racing season begins. A 200-room luxury hotel, spa and entertainment center will open prior to the 2021 racing season.

Live racing resumes at Oaklawn on Jan. 24, 2020.

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