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Oaklawn explores December start to season

June 6, 2021 at 2:46 a.m.

Oaklawn President Louis Cella said Saturday an unprecedented change is a possibility for the Hot Springs racetrack's schedule next season.

Cella said Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort will present to the Arkansas Racing Commission a proposal for a likely 66-day racing season to begin Dec. 3 and conclude May 7, the date of the next Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.

"All of that is subject to commission approval," Cella said. "Details to follow, because we're still working on our stakes schedule."

The new schedule would feature mostly three-day race weeks, running Friday through Sunday rather than previous seasons of Thursday through Sunday.

It also would include the possibility of races limited to 2-year-old horses in December. Cella said that could clear the way for a December stakes race for 2-year-old horses in search of Kentucky Derby-qualifying points.

"This brings a whole new era of 2-year-old racing, which we stopped 50 years ago," Cella said. "We have to work through a lot of details. We have to work with our racing commission, so this is premature because the racing commission might not want to go down this path."

Arkansas Racing Commission Chairman Alex Lieblong said it is probable he and his fellow six commissioners will find necessary adjustments to Oaklawn's proposal, but he is confident an agreement will be reached.

"So far, we have not gotten anything official, but when we do, if you've gotten the horsemen and Oaklawn agreeing to it, I think we will be able to work it out," Lieblong said.

Cella said Oaklawn horsemen with whom he has spoken with sounded receptive to the proposal.

Longtime Oaklawn trainer and Hot Springs resident Ron Moquett, whose home is within earshot of the racetrack's backstretch, briefly complained about Oaklawn's schedule change in 2019, which delayed the traditional season's start by two weeks. It extended his barn's downtime after the late November closing of Churchill Down's fall season.

The new proposal eliminates that potential income loss for his barn.

"Me, being a fan of Oaklawn, if they would be able to do it, we look forward to being at Oaklawn," Moquett said. "It would be an exciting time for any horseman who likes to be here. We would be tickled to death.

"It would be a great time for us who originate from around this area. If you told me I could run at Oaklawn or another spot, me being a homeboy, I would choose Oaklawn every time."

Cella said one of the driving forces behind Oaklawn's proposed change is the extent to which it would benefit horsemen to begin racing in early December rather than late January.

"Over 40% of our backstretch comes from Churchill Downs in Kentucky when they close," Cella said. "That means that 40% of the horses that came from Kentucky at the end of -- call it Thanksgiving -- are sitting around until the end of January when we started our traditional season, and they don't have an opportunity to run for a purse. So all of those people, all those trainers, all of those horses now have an opportunity to run for a purse to help pay assistants and their vet bills and their feed bills, so they're quite enthusiastic for this change."

Moquett agreed.

"The thing this would do is give horsemen a chance to not have as much downtime," he said. "We can give the horses the breaks as much as we need to, but it's hard for somebody to not have an income coming in for X amount of time."

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