Hot Springs, Ark. (Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015) – Oaklawn Park General Manager Eric Jackson said late in the 2014 meeting that he wouldn’t trade places with any track in the country.
Approximately nine months later, Jackson hasn’t changed his mind.
“We’re very appreciative of where we are right now,” Jackson said. “But I think we’re on the cusp of taking it to another level. That’s what’s particularly exciting and gratifying.”
Armed with the highest projected purse distribution in its 111-year history, Oaklawn will open its live season for the first time on a Thursday after having to cancel the first three days of the scheduled 57-day meeting last week because of severe winter weather.
Gates open Thursday at 11 a.m., with racing to begin at 1 p.m. Oaklawn has waived the $2 general admission fee this year.
Thursday’s nine-race card is anchored by the $100,000 Dixie Belle Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at six furlongs, and also features the return for 2014 Arkansas Derby and Preakness runner-up Ride On Curlin in a second-level allowance sprint.
Sunny skies and temperatures approaching 50 degrees are forecast Thursday afternoon, according to weather.com.
Oaklawn officials are projecting a record purse distribution of $23.5 million in 2015, an average of roughly $435,000 daily. Oaklawn averaged a record $413,000 in daily purse distribution last year, 15.8 percent increase over the 2013 meeting ($347,796).
Oaklawn’s purse structure has skyrocketed in recent years because of the continued success of skill-based electronic gaming at the track. A portion of games of skills revenue is earmarked for purses.
Purses figure to keep soaring since Oaklawn completed a $20 million expansion at the south end of the grandstand in the offseason, increasing gaming space by approximately 50 percent.
“It’s great now,” Jackson said. “But, when I look at the next two or three years, you go, ‘Oh, my, this could really be something.’ ”
Higher purses will lead to better quality on the track.
Nine of Oaklawn’s 10 leading trainers from last year have returned, including three-time defending champion Steve Asmussen. Among the high-profile training newcomers are Tony Dutrow, Wayne Catalano, Mike Stidham, Steve Margolis, Karl Broberg and Robertino Diodoro.
Broberg (325), Asmussen (294) and Diodoro (244) ranked first, second and fifth, respectively, in the country in victories last year.
Eight of the top 10 leading jockeys from 2014 return, including Ricardo Santana Jr., who is bidding for his third consecutive title. Also returning are Hall of Famer Calvin Borel, Jon Court and two-time Oaklawn riding champions Cliff Berry and Terry Thompson.
Newcomers of note are Shaun Bridgmohan and Joe Rocco Jr., who ranked in the top 60 nationally in purse earnings last year, and Emmanuel Esquivel, leading rider at the recently concluded Hawthorne meeting.
Among the top horses scheduled to run at the meet are Grade I winners Take Charge Brandi, the likely champion 2-year-old filly, The Big Beast, Work All Week, Don’t Tell Sophia and Moonshine Mullin.
“I’m really, really pleased with our quality this year,” Oaklawn racing secretary Pat Pope said.
The richest stakes schedule in Oaklawn history is highlighted by the closing-day $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) April 11 and the $750,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) March 14.
The Rebel, the final major local prep for the Arkansas Derby, was previously worth $600,000.
Trainer Ron Moquett, an Arkansas native and Oaklawn regular, said he believes fans and handicappers will be treated to a top-shelf season.
“I think it’s going to be fun for gamblers,” Moquett said. “There’s going to be a variety of horsemen with a different level of horse.”
THURSDAY’S TIMES First post for the nine races is 1 p.m. Gates open at 11 a.m.
GENERAL ADMISSION Free
PROMOTION Price rollback: Corned beef sandwiches are 50 cents and soft drinks are 10 cents
TRACK WEBSITE www.oaklawn.com
ADW WEBSITE www.oaklawnanywhere.com