HOT SPRINGS -- The Triple Crown roots of closing day at Oaklawn have endured a schedule change and the world's worst pandemic in over 100 years.
For decades, the final day of Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort's racing season came on the second Saturday of April and featured the Grade I Arkansas Derby, long the last significant Kentucky Derby qualifier. When that day was moved to the first Saturday in May in 2019, administrators from Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore asked Oaklawn officials to consider the addition of a Grade I Preakness Stakes qualifier on their schedule.
Oaklawn did exactly that.
"It really fell in our lap," Oaklawn President Louis Cella said. "Pimlico reached out to us and said this would be a natural to get another horse into the Preakness. So many times, horses kind of dodge the Preakness for the Belmont, or they're not ready. This sort of added another high-caliber horse to the Preakness. They reached out to us, and we were delighted to take advantage of that."
The third $300,000 1 1/8-mile Oaklawn Stakes for 3-year-old horses was won by Fulsome in 1:50.01 before an estimated crowd of 20,000 at Oaklawn on Saturday, the final day of the 2021 season.
From the barn of 2020 Eclipse Award champion trainer Brad Cox, Fulsome was ridden by Martin Garcia.
"These other horses fight with me a little bit, but mine, when we started to run, he just took off," Garcia said. "He's a really good horse. He's going to keep getting to be a better horse in the future."
A stall among the 14 in the Preakness starting gate will be one of the next options for Fulsome's connections.
Warrant finished second, 1 1/4 lengths behind the winner and a nose in front of Game Day Play. Scarred was fourth, 1 1/2 lengths behind the winner.
Like racetracks' and all other sporting and business interests across the country and around the world, Oaklawn worked its way this season through a second year burdened by the covid-19 pandemic.
"It's a testament to our employees and our staff, what they've had to put up with since January to a little more freedom today," Cella said. "We had a limited attendance early to where [we are] today, and it's a little too early to tell, we might have 20,000 people. It's a wonderful season, and we're delighted."
Oaklawn's season officially concluded with the track's traditional Trail's End, a 1 3/4-mile race for horses 3 years old and up, the longest race of the year, won by Original Attempt to wrap up the year's horse racing in Arkansas.
In the Oaklawn Stakes, jockey Rocco Bowen took the lead from the gate on Jerry Hollendorfer-trained Causeway Jones.
Causeway Jones led the field through a seemingly comfortable first quarter-mile in 23.50, 3 lengths ahead of Game Day Play. Causeway Jones maintained his lead through the half in 48.28 and three-quarters in 1:12.94.
Fulsome was in sixth through 6 furlongs but had a head in front at the top of the stretch. Causeway Jones had faded to sixth.
"He was relaxed," Bowen said. "I got patient fractions. Like Jerry said, you never know when you travel a route of ground, but I'm just grateful to race for Mr. Hollendorfer and to all the guys who gave me an opportunity to ride this horse today. To get an opportunity for a shot at the Preakness, it's a pleasure."
Fulsome held the lead through the finish against the onrush of Warrant and Game Day Play, ridden by Fernando De La Cruz and Ramon Vazquez, respectively.
Garcia said his instructions from Cox were simple.
"He told me I was sitting on the best horse," Garcia said. "He said, 'Get in the picture.' ''
Oaklawn's champions for the 2021 season start with Jerry Caroom's 4-year-old Arkansas-bred colt Tempt Fate Oaklawn's winningest horse for the season. He won four of four starts, a run that included and was highlighted by his win in the $200,000 Arkansas Breeders' Championship on Friday.
"All of the horsemen, we're very grateful for what the Cella family has done for racing here," said Caroom, before he paused and raised an arm toward the grandstand. "This is magnificent. This is a great place to be."
Jockey Ricardo Santana Jr., led Oaklawn's riders with 68 wins. It was his eighth Oaklawn riding championship. Santana Jr., also led Oaklawn riders in purse earnings with $5,642,523.
Hall of Fame member Steve Asmussen led Oaklawn's trainers with 60 wins for his 11th track training title, tied for most in a career with Henry Forrest, who won his titles between 1947 and 1963. Asmussen also set the Oaklawn record for purse earnings in a season with $6,023,002.
In light of the circumstances, including eight days of racing lost to record snowfall in February, Cella said he was pleased by the season just completed.
"We had great horses running here," Cella said. "We had great representation in the Oaks yesterday and the Kentucky Derby today, so we're very excited."