Looking Back on a Spring Meet Like No Other at Oaklawn Park

Oaklawn Park concluded its 2020 meeting on May 2 with two divisions of the Arkansas Derby. The Saturday meet was held with no attendees permitted but set a record handle for the track. (Coady Photography)

Oaklawn Park promised “a new level of excitement” in a tag line for 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic altered the meaning of this slogan, but Oaklawn adjusted and delivered in one of the strangest springs in the track’s history. Here are highlights from this unusual season:

  • Changing landscape: The meet opened against the backdrop of the construction of the seven-story $100 hotel and casino expansion project scheduled to be complete by the 2021 meet.
  • New faces: Arkansas welcomed new horsemen from California to New York who were drawn in part by some of the highest purses in the country during the first months of the year. Martin Garcia and Joe Talamo joined the jockey colony and finished second and third in the standings, respectively. The barns housed strings from trainers Jerry Hollendorfer, Peter Eurton, Richard Baltas, John Sadler and Jeremiah Englehart.
  • Strong start: Almost 60,000 fans attended opening weekend and helped set a record handle for January at the track.

Ricardo Santana Jr. (Coady Photography)
  • And the crowd goes home: Thursday, March 12 was the last day of racing with spectators. The Rebel Stakes, the card that provided Oaklawn’s all-time single-day wagering record in 2019, was run two days later in front of an empty grandstand.
  • Pandemic affects jockeys: Ricardo Santana Jr. rode in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, knowing he would have to quarantine for 12 days before returning to Oaklawn. Javier Castellano was willing to leave New York and quarantine for two weeks before riding in the Arkansas Derby.
  • Wild about Whitmore: Oaklawn fan favorite Whitmore won his third Count Fleet Sprint Handicap, pushing his earnings over $3 million. This was the Ron Moquett trainee’s sixth graded stakes victory and fourteenth win overall.
  • The first Saturday in May’s Derby is in Arkansas: after Churchill Downs moved the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve to Sept. 5, Oaklawn shifted the Arkansas Derby to May 2, the traditional date for the Run for the Roses, and horses ran for a blanket of gardenias instead.
  • Split decision: With 22 entries, Oaklawn opted to split the Arkansas Derby in two divisions, and Churchill Downs allowed the full Kentucky Derby qualifying points for each. The signature race was split one other time –in 1960 – in its 84-year history. Two scratches in each division brought the fields to nine horses each.

  • Baffert sweeps: Contestants in the Arkansas Derby’s split divisions included the winners of the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the Rebel Stakes, the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby and the Louisiana Derby. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert won both divisions of the Arkansas Derby, and Charlatan and Nadal remain undefeated and pointed to Churchill in September, where Baffert will attempt to tie the record for six Kentucky Derby victories.
  • Records shattered: On April 18, Oaklawn’s handle was $19 million, breaking the record set last year on Rebel Stakes day. Arkansas Derby day more than doubled that record, with $41,007,201 wagered.
  • Santana back on top: Ricardo Santana Jr. regained the leading rider title with 60 wins, earning his seventh title overall. During the season, he notched 500 career victories at Oaklawn and became the track’s all-time leader for purse earnings by a jockey, surpassing Hall of Famer Calvin Borel.
  • Rising star: Kelsi Harr, 27, is the meet’s leading apprentice jockey with 11 wins. The Slovak, Ark., native spent 7 years as an exercise rider prior to this season.
  • Other champions: Robertino Diodoro won his first leading trainer title, winning four more races than ten-time champion Steve Asmussen, who doubled Diodoro in purses. M & M Racing won their third consecutive leading owner title.

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