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Forecast leads Oaklawn to cancel days, shift races

by PETE PERKINS SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | February 11, 2021 at 2:20 a.m.
Louis Cella is shown in this Jan. 14, 2020 photo at the Oaklawn Kick-Off Banquet held at Windham North LIttle Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Oaklawn has canceled racing Saturday through Monday because of inclement weather, and two stakes races on both days have been rescheduled for Feb. 20-21.

"Mother Nature wins 10 times out of 10," Oaklawn President Louis Cella said. "There's no reason to try to fight her. It's frustrating, but there's nothing we can do out of an abundance of caution for horses, for the jockeys, our fans driving across the state. It's the appropriate thing to do."

The National Weather Service predicted an 80% to 90% chance of freezing rain Wednesday night and a 70% chance today. Accumulations of up to a half inch of ice through Central Arkansas are predicted.

The Grade III Razorback Handicap scheduled for Saturday, and the Grade III Southwest Stakes and Grade II Bayakoa Stakes scheduled for Monday have been rescheduled for Feb. 20. The Dixie Belle Stakes, scheduled for Saturday, has been rescheduled for Feb. 21 on a card that will include the Downthedustyroad Stakes for Arkansas-bred fillies and mares 4 years old and up.

"The weather forecast does not look promising this weekend between the ice and frigid temperatures, so out of consideration for the safety of the horses, our horsemen and fans, we wanted to make this call as soon as possible," General Manager Wayne Smith said. "We appreciate the cooperation we have received from our horsemen and racing commission. Though we are frustrated Mother Nature has thrown us a curveball, our rescheduled stakes will create a spectacular weekend of racing next week."

Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort hopes to race today and Friday as scheduled.

Larry Jones, who trains Dixie Belle entrant Windmill, said Oaklawn made the correct decision to cancel racing this weekend.

"Even if they could have racing ... which it looks like the track would probably be OK, I don't know if I can get out of my barn, because all around it is nothing but blacktop," Jones said. "Blacktop, freezing rain and horses, those things don't go together, because no one has ever taught my horses how to skate."

Though weather forecasts are far from certain, Cella said the threat of ice was significant enough to make the call.

"We can't have a lot of horses show up and then all of the sudden have an ice rink for a track that they can't get on," Cella said. "We cannot afford to have fans from Little Rock or Jonesboro or Fayetteville drive in treacherous weather because they want to see a great race just to get here and have it be canceled."

Trainer Robertino Diodoro said he expects to enter 3-year-old Keepmeinmind in the Southwest, Oaklawn's second of four Kentucky Derby-qualifying races. Keepmeinmind is ranked second with 18 Derby qualifying points. Essential Quality, trained by Brad Cox and also an expected Southwest entrant, tops the standings with 30 points.

Diodoro also trains Dixie Belle entrant Ava's Grace.

"You have to take care of the horse first," Diodoro said. "If we get the weather it looks like we're getting, I can't see how we'd be able to run. Again, safety for the horse and all the fans and owners coming. Safety for everyone, really.

"My only concern is, is it really going to get as bad as they say, but at the same time, I think a lot of owners were planning on coming to town, and there's nothing worse than driving or flying in and then the races are canceled. I think they did the right thing by letting everyone know ahead of time."

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