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HOT SPRINGS -- Louis Cella, Oaklawn Park president, looked out over his racetrack domain and liked what he saw.

"Finally," he said, grateful for splashes of sun, the absence of rain and an announced crowd of 22,000 on Saturday. "Finally."

Cella was beaming for several reasons as Oaklawn's 2019 racing season crossed the finish line on the first Saturday of May, three weeks later than it ever has before.

Stay until May has been the theme, and the idea was to start the season three weeks later, avoid the January chill and keep running past the Arkansas Derby, which has been the closing day at Oaklawn for as long as anybody can remember.

"This is new territory," Cella said. "We're going to give this a good 3-5 years."

Oaklawn got more than it bargained for Saturday.

Whatever happens next year and beyond, it will be difficult to match the drama that took place off the track and on TV screens throughout the Oaklawn facility after an objection was filed in the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby.

As it turned out, Country House -- the third-place finisher of the Arkansas Derby, and the second horse to cross the finish line at Churchill Downs -- was elevated to the top spot when first-place finisher Maximum Security was disqualified for interference at the head of the stretch and placed 17th.

Oaklawn Park state steward Stan Bowker could not comment on the decision, but he said the reason it took so long -- nearly 30 minutes -- was because the Churchill Downs stewards had to decide how many horses were affected by the interference ruled against Maximum Security, the race favorite.

It was a double reversal of fortune for Oaklawn.

All week, the track trumpeted Arkansas Derby winner Omaha Beach's quest for the Kentucky Derby on radio and TV.

It was too late for the track to change its advertising campaign when Omaha Beach scratched on Wednesday with an entrapped epiglottis, but an Arkansas Derby participant ended up wearing the roses anyway.

General Manager Wayne Smith said the schedule shift was huge move for the track.

"It was everything we hoped it would be," Smith said of the track's closing day. "And we've got a Kentucky Derby winner. How exciting is that?"

Smith said moving the dates made all the sense in the world, but the track could not have done it without the support of the horsemen and fans.

"Our fans here in Arkansas are the best in the country," he said.

Among those who attended Saturday, the extended season was seen as a positive development.

Tony Rogers, a Little Rock pharmacist, said he'd rather see them racing in the warmer weather than in the cold and ice of January.

"What I would say is that anybody that comes the first three weeks, it's snowing, sleeting, it's cold, the crowds are pitiful. ... So no matter what, you're going to equal your crowds.

"Had we had beautiful weather that we usually have this time of year, this would be great. It's going to take some getting used to. You got your regulars, who go to the Derby, and they're made because they're missing it."

Ferndale's John Parke, another longtime Oaklawn fan, agreed with many of the points made by Rogers.

"I personally like the change, even though it's hurt my golf game," he said. "It's just better running in the nicer weather."

Parke said it was a different feeling on Arkansas Derby Day knowing it wasn't the last day of the season.

"It felt a little weird," he said. "Now, I'm here on closing day, at a different time, and it's not really as sad as it normally is. It's pretty cool. We've run three more weeks."

The 2020 racing season will mirror the season that ended Saturday, except there will be a day off after the Arkansas Derby because of Easter Sunday.

Parke said he was impressed how the quality of racing and field size remained high despite many of the horsemen having to split their stables among Hot Springs and other tracks that traditionally open in late April and early May.

But Parke noted that leading trainer Steve Asmussen, who won two Grade I races at Churchill Downs on Friday and Saturday, was still overseeing his Oaklawn stable as recently as last week.

"That means it's still important to him," Parke said.

Trainers who were still on the grounds Saturday included Ingrid Mason, a winner of 15 races at the meet, and Jinks Fires, whose Gray Attempt was one of the track's top 3-year-olds, winning the Smarty Jones Stakes and the Gazebo Stakes before finishing off the board in the Arkansas Derby.

"It's good for me," said Mason, who tied with Ron Moquett for seventh in the trainer standings. "For me, it's great."

Fires said he thinks the extra three weeks was a boost for Arkansas-breds, who not only participated in numerous races but also raced for a $200,000 purse for the first time Saturday in the Arkansas Breeders' Championship.

"Arkansas horses really helped make the races go," said Fires, who thinks the purse money available for Arkansas-bred races will help the Arkansas breeding program. "Real positive for Arkansas-breds."

For Cella and Smith, Saturday was a glimpse of what the future holds for Oaklawn, one that will soon include a hotel and expanded casino presence.

Smith said the goal is to have Oaklawn talked about in the same terms as hallowed thoroughbred tracks such as Saratoga in upstate New York and Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky.

Cella, meanwhile, was living the life of track owner, horse owner and racing fan as he stood in the section reserved for trainers and owners as his Incorrigible built a clear lead in the seventh race and never stopped.

"Come on, come on, come on," said Cella, urging jockey Calvin Borel to get him home on top. "Keep going, keep going, keep going."

Cella tapped a reporter on the shoulder after Incorrigible broke his maiden by nearly 3 lengths at 2 to 1 odds.

"You can interview me any time before a race if you want," Cella said.

It was a good day for Cella, and a good day for Oaklawn.

Sports on 05/05/2019

Print Headline: Oaklawn schedule 'finally' pays off


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