The 2013 season at Oaklawn Park opens Jan. 11 with a scheduled record purse structure, new veterinary examination policies and claiming rules, an injury database to aid commission vets, a recently-hired track superintendant, Kevin Seymore, and a new director of gaming technical maintenance, Paul Szeflinski.
Thanks to the revenue from Oaklawn's gaming center completed in 2010, more than $20 million is expected to be paid out in purses during the 56-day season, which runs until April 13. According to local sports reporter Robert Yates of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, trainers expected to maintain strings for the first time at the historic Hot Springs, Ark. oval include Eoin Harty, Dale Romans, Al Stall Jr., Helen Pitts, and Phil Simms.
Oaklawn will also be a key location for sophomore runners to pick up points under the new qualifying system for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I). Purses for the track's traditional preps have been increased.
This year, the $150,000 Smarty Jones and $300,000 Southwest Stakes (gr. III)—the latter lengthened from a mile to 1 1/16 miles—received $50,000 increases and will anchor two holiday Mondays Jan. 21 and Feb. 18. The $600,000 Rebel (gr. II) is up by $100,000 and will be the marquee event March 16. The action culminates April 13 with the 77th running of the $1 million Arkansas Derby (gr. I). Last year, Bodemeister used the Arkansas Derby to secure his spot in the Run for the Roses and went on to runner-up finishes in the Kentucky Derby and in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I).
The Smarty Jones and Southwest are each worth 10 points on the Derby trail, while the Rebel winner gets 50 and the winner of the Arkansas Derby will receive 100 points. For fillies, the $75,000 Martha Washington on Feb. 9 is worth 10 points toward the Kentucky Oaks, the $150,000 Honeybee (gr. III) March 9 is worth 50, and the $400,000 Fantasy Stakes (gr. III) is worth 100 on April 10.
The record $5.7 million stakes schedule bumped up purses for 13 of 32 stakes planned for the season, including the $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II) for older horses on the Arkansas Derby undercard. Alternation, winner of the 2012 edition, is back in training with Donnie Von Hemel following a layup and could make the season-end event.
Stakes aren't the only races to see increases. The most lucrative condition book in the track's history will feature maiden allowance races at $53,000 versus $40,000 last year; open allowance races as high as $56,000, and increases in key categories as high as 50% when compared to the first condition book of the 2012 season. Daily purses are expected to average $350,000 to $370,000.
Last year, Oaklawn increased purses four times during the meet to pay out about $18 million.
The new vet policies were adopted in November by the Arkansas Racing Commission, which will for the first time require pre-race morning examinations of all runners entered for the afternoons. This policy is in accordance with the model rules of the Association of Racing Commissioners International. The commission has hired another vet to assist with the new requirement and commission vets will have access to the injury database Oaklawn began compiling last year.
The commission also lowered the permissible amount of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory phenylbutazone to 2.0 micrograms per milliliter of blood, which was formerly the standard only in graded stakes. The permissible level in other races had been 5.0 micrograms per milliliter of blood.
At the claming box, those dropping in a slip with have 10 minutes before scheduled post time of the applicable race instead of 15. And, "in the event a claimed horse suffers a fatality during the running of the race or is otherwise removed from the race track in the horse ambulance," the winner of the claim has one hour to void it.
New in 2013, Oaklawn is planning to open its infield every Saturday from the Rebel Stakes through the Arkansas Derby.
The opening day card, which kicks off with a first post of 1 p.m. CST, features the $75,000 Fifth Season stakes and drew a field of nine older horses going 1 1/16 miles. Fan favorite Win Willy, who took the 2009 Rebel Stakes and 2011 Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II), will go head-to-head with multiple stakes winner Endorsement, who is unraced since the Whitney Handicap (gr. I) last August.
Those veteran runners will have to contend with a pair of stakes-winning newly turned 4-year-olds who were winners at Oaklawn last year. Richard Davis' Master Rick, who closed out his 2012 Oaklawn meet by winning the Northern Spur Stakes, enters the Fifth Season off a second-place finish in the Dec. 1 Zia Park Derby. Bluegrass Hall's Skyring, who broke his maiden at Oaklawn, went on to prove versatile on both dirt and turf. His stakes win came in the James W. Murphy Stakes on the turf at Pimlico on Preakness Day.
Jockey Calvin Borel, who is just one win away from career win 5,000, was named aboard Eye of the Leopard in the Fifth Season, but is currently on the sidelines with a fractured wrist.
All of Oaklawn's races will be available this meet on HRTV, and the track will also produce "Oaklawn Today," a new television program for the 2013 racing season featuring full replays and race calls by track announcer Frank Mirahmadi. The 30-minute show will air every race day at 11 p.m. CST and will also air at 9 p.m. on Resort Cable Channel 5 in Hot Springs. Ark., with a rebroadcast the following day at 9 a.m. and an archive on the wesbite www.ArkansasMatters.com.