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Oaklawn adjusts schedule, purses

by Pete Perkins, Pete Perkins/Special to the Democrat-Gazette | July 7, 2021 at 7:00 a.m.
FILE — Horses and jockeys break from the starting gate at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)

Purse increases, new stakes races and a significant adjustment of Oaklawn's four-race Kentucky Derby qualifying series were announced Tuesday at the Hot Springs racetrack.

The 2021-22 season, which begins Dec. 3, six weeks and six days earlier than last season, will feature the $250,000, 1-mile Smarty Jones Stakes to start the Derby points chase on New Year's Day. The following three Derby qualifying races are the Grade III, 1 1/16-mile Southwest Stakes on Jan. 29; the Grade II, 1 1/16-mile Rebel Stakes on Feb. 26; and the Grade I, 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby (April 2), where the purse has been increased to $1.25 million from $1 million.

Last season, the Smarty Jones, Southwest, Rebel, and Arkansas Derby were originally scheduled for Jan. 23, Feb. 16, March 14 and April 11, respectively. The Arkansas Derby has been scheduled three weeks before the Kentucky Derby for several generations of fans, horsemen, and Oaklawn personnel. Still, many horsemen prefer at least a four-week break rather than three weeks between their horses' final prep and the Kentucky Derby.

"With the extra timing between races and added purse money, we believe Oaklawn will only grow as the place to prepare for the Triple Crown races," Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort President Louis Cella said.

Robertino Diodoro, an Oaklawn regular and the track's training champion in 2019, said he has not yet found a flaw in Oaklawn's most recent changes.

"It's going to do nothing but help Oaklawn, for sure," Diodoro said.

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas approves, too.

"If your goal is the Kentucky Derby, I think this is without a doubt the best setup for developing a 3-year-old," Lukas said. "With those four races, you don't have to leave. You don't have to go anywhere. You don't have to ship. They're spaced properly, and the purses are terrific."

Lukas, a member of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, has trained four Kentucky Derby winners. He was long a proponent of Oaklawn's overall rescheduling announced last month.

"That was a big step in the right direction," he said. "We had a lot of people disgruntled because they had that seven- or eight- or nine-week break for the horses who were going to run there, especially the 2-year-olds. That was a wonderful addition."

New stakes races include the opening-day $150,000, 6-furlong Advent Stakes for 2-year-olds. The next three, leading to a break for the Christmas weekend, are the $150,000, 1 1/16-mile Mistletoe Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on Dec. 4; the $150,000 Poinsettia Stakes for 3-year-olds on Dec. 11; and the $200,000 1 1/8-mile Tinsel Stakes for 3-years-old and up on Dec. 18.

The new $150,000 1-mile Natural States Breeders' Stakes for fillies and mares 3 years old and up will add a second two-turn race for Arkansas-breds to Oaklawn's final weekend of racing.

Diodoro trained Keepmeinmind to a seventh-place finish in the Kentucky Derby and to fourth place in the Preakness Stakes, the second of the Triple Crown series, but Keepmeinmind's only Oaklawn appearance was a sixth-place finish in the Rebel.

"I think this is definitely going to increase the chances of [a trainer running all his horses in Derby-prep races at Oaklawn]," Diodoro said. "Will any of them? You never know, but at least it's going to give some guys a chance to do that if that's what they want to do, which is going to make strong fields for these races at Oaklawn."

Diodoro trains Richard Davis' 2-year-old colt Simply Wicked, currently ranked fourth among possible Kentucky Derby contenders by Horse Racing Nation. Simply Wicked, a son of Wicked Strong and paternal grandson of Colonel John, is entered for his stakes debut in the $100,000 5 1/2-furlong Texas Thoroughbred Futurity at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas on Saturday.

"If guys have a 3-year-old and with [Oaklawn] backing up the Arkansas Derby, they're going to make a lot of guys opt-out to run in it every year, guys who have good 3-year-olds," Diodoro said. "With them backing it up, it gives a little more space between the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby."

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