The 2015 Oaklawn Park stakes schedule released Thursday is a near replica to what the track put on in 2014, with one lucrative exception.
Take a look at March 14.
The only three stakes to receive purse increases in 2015 -- the Rebel for 3-year-olds, the Azeri for older fillies and mares and the Razorback Handicap for older horses -- all occur on that day, which Oaklawn is promoting as its Racing Festival Preview.
Most notable is the Rebel Stakes, which was run for $100,000 in 2002, $200,000 when Smarty Jones won it in 2004 and $300,000 when Curlin won in 2007. Now it will carry a $750,000 purse, an increase of $150,000 over 2014, to rank it as the most lucrative race for 3-year-olds that doesn't have Derby attached to it.
"The Rebel used to be a prep for the Arkansas Derby," said David Longinotti, Oaklawn's racing director. "Now it is a prep for the Kentucky Derby itself."
Its placement four weeks before the $1 million Arkansas Derby puts it in the middle segment of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, with 50 points going to the winner along with $450,000 in prize money. Based on the past two years, winning the Rebel would guarantee a spot in the Kentucky Derby. Second place is worth 20 points, which was good enough for Commanding Curve to make the 2014 Derby field.
Longinotti said increasing the Rebel purse, along with the Azeri ($300,000, up $100,000) and the Razorback ($250,000, up $50,000), is an attempt to lure more horsemen to use the Hot Springs track as their base for Kentucky Derby preparations.
Oaklawn boasts four 3-year-old preps worth a combined $2.2 million in purse money and 289 in points, trailing only Santa Anita, site of the 2014 Breeders' Cup, which will offer an additional 17 points because of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Oaklawn's aim in increasing the Rebel purse isn't simply to lure horses to the track for an opportunity to qualify for the Kentucky Derby and cash a big check.
"The goal is get a couple to compete in all of them," Longinotti said.
Oaklawn's emphasis on 3-year-olds, both male and female, has accelerated since 2004, when Oaklawn President Charles Cella boosted the Arkansas Derby from $500,000 to $1 million and offered a $5 million bonus to any horse who swept the Rebel, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby, which Smarty Jones accomplished.
"What would have happened had Smarty Jones not done anything?" Longinotti said. "But our focus as the been the 3-year-old season."
Not all the tracks that host Derby prep races have released their stakes schedule, but based on 2014, the Rebel ranks as the second-richest race in the second tier of the Derby Championship Series, behind the $800,000 Sunland Park Derby, which was run March 23 last year at Sunland Park in New Mexico. The Sunland Park Derby was the last race on the Derby prep schedule before the top tier, which includes the Louisiana Derby, Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial, Arkansas Derby and the Blue Grass. All of them carry purses of either $750,000 or $1 million and a total of 170 points.
Overall, Oaklawn will run 31 stakes worth $6,675,000, $300,000 more than 2014 and more than $2 million than it offered just seven years ago.
Recent Rebel winners include 3-year-old champions Will Take Charge, Lookin at Lucky, Curlin and Smarty Jones.
The Racing Festival of the South will kick off Saturday, April 4, with the $400,000 Fantasy Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. Racing resumes April 8 with the $100,000 Carousel Stakes for female sprinters. The $300,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap will anchor the card Thursday and Apple Blossom Handicap and the $100,000 Bachelor Stakes are the highlights of Friday.
The meet ends with the 79th running of the Arkansas Derby, which produced three different top-three finishers in the Triple Crown races -- Danza (Kentucky Derby), Ride On Curlin (Preakness) and Commissioner (Belmont) -- in 2014. Oaklawn's 2015 season begins Jan. 9.
Sports on 08/01/2014
Print Headline: Track adds muscle as Derby qualifier