HOT SPRINGS -- For the first time since 1945, live racing at Oaklawn Park will take place after Arkansas Derby Day's traditional mid-April spot on the calendar.
The new format extends the Racing Festival of the South to today, with a nine-race card highlighted by the Grade I, $750,000 1 1/16-mile Apple Blossom Handicap for fillies and mares 4 years old and up, and the $150,000, 1 1/16-mile Fifth Season Stakes for horses 4 years old and up.
Live racing at Oaklawn will continue through May 4, the day of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.
Oaklawn President Louis Cella introduced the new schedule last April. It delayed recent starting dates by two weeks, with the season opening on Jan. 25.
Complaints have been limited to those generated by impatience and the scheduling conflicts inherent in a business as transient as horse racing.
Cella said he is pleased with the results.
"It's worked great so far," he said. "We will see [today] if it was a good decision. We've had great feedback.
"Our backstretch is still full. The weather is getting warmer and nicer, despite maybe the weather this weekend. It's going well. We just hope it's a good decision. We'll find out."
Trainer Ron Moquett was among those in January who said the later start left him eager for a return to the track. Now toward the end of the season, he faces the same challenge as most other Oaklawn horsemen. In many cases, they must split their stables between Oaklawn and other tracks whose schedules now overlap Oaklawn's by three additional weeks.
Most, including Moquett, have accepted the new challenge.
"What we're figuring out now is who's leaving when," Moquett said. "We're trying to break it down. The thing that controls it is the condition book for here and the condition book for the next spot. You just try to see which horses fit which racing dates."
Condition books report for horseman the specificities of races available at racetracks on given dates. Moquett had condition books on his office desk for Oaklawn, Churchill and Keeneland in Lexington, Ky.
"This time last year, we were just figuring out the quickest way to get them all to Kentucky, and now we're trying to figure out who might stay here and who won't," Moquett said.
Moquett said about 60 percent of his horses will stay at Oaklawn for at least part of the final three weeks. He has about 50 horses in his barn.
Trainer Jinks Fires said there are advantages to the later closing date, particularly the lack of chaos typically associated with mass moving days.
"I like this deal where you don't move out the next day," Fires said. "Normally on Derby Day, when you're trying to run a horse, there are so many horse trailers, junk stacked everywhere, garbage everywhere, the place looks like Sanford and Son back here on Derby Day, but now that racing is continuing on, racing will be as usual."
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen will be among those trainers who send horses to Oaklawn's racetrack today, rather than to trailers for trips to Kentucky or elsewhere. Foremost among them is the 4-year-old filly Midnight Bisou, the 7-5 morning-line second choice in the Apple Blossom.
Six are entered in the Apple Blossom, which has a post time scheduled for 4:42 p.m.
Bill Mott, another member of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, trains Elate, the 6-5 morning-line Apple Blossom favorite. Elate finished second by a length as the even-money favorite to Midnight Bisou in Oaklawn's Grade II, $350,000 Azeri Stakes on March 16.
The first start this year for Midnight Bisou, a 4-year-old daughter of Midnight Lute owned by Bloom Racing Stable and Madaket Stables, resulted in a win in the Grade III 1-mile-and-1/16th Houston Ladies Classic Stakes at Sam Houston Race Park on Jan. 27.
"Midnight is a very special filly," Asmussen said. "If you don't want to run her, you don't want to run."
Sports on 04/14/2019
Print Headline: Hours after Derby Day takes on different feel