By John Piesen
American Turf Monthly
Located as it is in the small resort town of Hot Springs in southwestern Arkansas, Oaklawn Park doesn't receive the national attention afforded to the big-name tracks in New York, California, Kentucky and Florida, but in the past decade of its 100-plus years, there has been no more popular racing venue.
Purses have spiked, the 3-year-old program is the best in North America; the newly-built racino is among the most popular in the gaming business; restaurants, social activities have flourished, and most of all, Oaklawn Park continues to attract the best horses on the planet.
Starting with Smarty Jones in '04, the likes of Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, Havre de Grace, Afleet Alex, Curlin, Lawyer Ron, Pure Clan and Caleb's Posse have raced at Oaklawn -- and, incidentally, won at a combined 92 percent clip.
It is doubtful that we'll see any Zenyattas or Curlins at the 2013 meet, which opens on Jan. 11 and continues for 56 racing days thru the April 13 card, which, as usual, will be an all-two turn program witnessed by 70,000-plus partygoers, and feature the $1 million Arkansas Derby, the most significant Kentucky Derby prep of all. But it won't be for lack of trying.
Just last year, the Arkansas Derby was won by a nice colt named Bodemeister, who would go on to close-up seconds to I'll Have Another in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. At OP, Bodey capped a 6-2-1 record for California-based trainer Bob Baffert.
Expect more of the same this year from Bullet Bob, who calls Hot Springs his second home. And keep in mind that Secret Circle, who won the Southwest and Rebel last year, and was second to stablemate Bodemeister in the Arkansas Derby, is back in training, and pointing for Oaklawn.
In case you're making travel plans, note that the Oaklawn's Big Four races for 3-years-olds this year are scheduled as follows: the $150,000 Smarty Jones on Jan. 21; the $300,000 Southwest on Feb. 18; the $600,000 Rebel on March 16, and, of course, the Ark Derby on closing day, April 13.
Despite its outstanding stakes schedule, the bread-and-butter at OP are the claiming and allowance races which draw horses from throughout the country, notably Kentucky, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Illinois, Iowa, New York, New Jersey and Delaware.
From a betting standpoint, this makes the races difficult to analyze, especially during the first half of the meet.
How does the Churchill horse stack up against the Remington horse?
How do you compare the Louisiana horse to the Iowa gunner?
Often the bettors make the wrong choice, and that is why OP is a longshot player's paradise.
Yes, by meet's end, the percentage of winning favorites will be at or near the national average of 33 percent, but on a day-to-day basis, you'll find at least one, and often two bombers in virtually every exacta and trifecta. Unlike other tracks, at Oaklawn you won't be saddled with short fields dominated by short-priced winners. This is one reason why the Arkansas track is so popular across-the-board at the national simulcast venues.
It's old news now that Oaklawn is the only major U.S. racetrack that lacks grass racing. Owner Charles Cella long has felt that, because of its time slot on the calendar, grass racing would be inappropriate for Oaklawn. And, as long as OP is locked into the January-thru-April days, that won't change.
But keep in mind that every year you'll find horses training over the dirt track at Oaklawn develop into grass stars down the road. One example is Pure Clan, who would go on to thrive on the grass for the late Bob Holthus, and recently bring $4 million at sale.
As for this writer, I was fortunate to spend 15 seasons at Oaklawn, mostly as the Daily Racing Form correspondent, and got to know the little nuances pretty well.
You need to watch the speed bias on a daily basis. If the early races are won on the front-end, it's pretty certain that the trend will continue all day. On the other hand, if the speed stops in the early races, it will stop all day.
Inside posts have a huge advantage, especially at two-turns. Posts eight and out are at a severe disadvantage going long.
The Oaklawn regulars dominate the jockey colony year in and year out. The only exception in my memory was Jeremy Rose, who with help from Afleet Alex and trainer Tim Ritchey, topped the 2005 standings with 48 winners.
This year, the Big Three in the Oaklawn jocks' room figure to be Cliff Berry, Terry Thompson and Calvin Borel.
Berry will be seeking his third straight OP crown, but don't be surprised if Thompson knocks him off this year. Thompson is the winningest Oaklawn jock since 2000; has won two meet titles, and last year, finished second with 46 winners to Berry's 50.
"I'm really excited about this meet," says Thompson. "I had two bad injuries last year, but still finished up strong, and (at 41) I'm physically better that ever. Plus, I'll be riding for some of the top people -- Wayne (Lukas), Steve (Hobby) and David (Vance) to name a few."
Borel is the wild card.
Like Berry and Thompson, a two-time OP champion, Borel last year rode the winter at Gulfstream, but he'll be back this year. And look for Borel, who rode three Kentucky Derby winners in four years, to reach the 5,000-win milestone early in the meet. He started the year at 4,998.
Eclipse Award winner Rosemary Homeister Jr. and Victor Lebron, both of whom have enjoyed success on the Midwest and Florida circuits, will try Oaklawn for the first time, and John McKee, who enjoyed some golden OP moments in the past, will return after a five-year absence with a new agent, former rider Julio Espinosa.
McKee, a Holthus protege, won the OP title in 2004 with 71 winners, and three years later, rode Lawyer Ron to victories in the Southwest, Rebel and Arkansas Derby. He would lose the mount when the colt was transferred from Holthus to Todd Pletcher.
"It will be great coming back," says McKee, a new father (son Max), "and I'm looking forward to a good meet with the help of my Kentucky outfits. Like anyone else, I need to stay healthy and get lucky, I know I have the ability."
Look for McKee to ride for Helen Pitts, the original trainer of Curlin; Grant Forster, Joe Martin and Allen Milligan.
Milligan finished second to Steve Asmussen (36-32) last year at OP, and both figure to be major factors again this year.
As will Jamie Ness, who batted .300 (21 for 67) last year in his rookie season at OP.
Veteran OP guys Lukas, Lynn Whiting, Chris Richard, Bret Calhoun, Ron Moquett, Hobby, Vance and the Von Hemels will win their share. Richards always is a "must-use" with horses owned by Maggi Moss, the nation's leading female owner.
Besides Pitts, such luminaries as Dale Romans, Eion Harty and Albert Stall will have divisions at OP for the first time, and, obviously, all must be considered well-armed and dangerous.
Among the horses to watch are Hightail, a Breeders' Cup winner from Lukas; Brown Almighty, a stakes-winner from Tim Ice, who gave us Summer Bird years back; Pure Fun, who won the Starlet in December for Arkansas native Ken McPeek, and Texas Bling, who won the Springboard Stakes on closing day at Remington at a $259 mutuel.
Likely we won't see many $259 winners at OP, but there will be a share of bombers.
Like the mineral water, the spas, the country music, the watering holes, and especially the racing at Oaklawn Park...you can count on it.