Oaklawn Park

Oaklawn Park

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Oaklawn Again Offers Bonus for Lasix-Free Runners

Charles Cella began the program in September 2014.

Known for doing things his way, a buttoned-up Charles Cella once had some of his philosophical ideas about racing printed on cocktail napkins for his VIP room at Oaklawn Park, the Hot Springs, Ark., venue he owned from 1968 until his death Dec. 6 from complications of Parkinson's disease.

Stacked over six abbreviated lines, the red-etched lettering on the white napkins read: "No Medication, No Rain, No Gimmicks, Only CLASSIX, And, Instant Racing."

Naturally, "No Medication" received top billing.

Cella was more acclaimed as a racetrack executive, but he was a successful Thoroughbred owner, campaigning, among others, 1995 male turf champion Northern Spur and 2013 Oaklawn Handicap winner Cyber Secret.

Cella was always a hay, oats, and water guy, too. A point reinforced in September of 2014 when he announced Oaklawn would become the country's first track to offer a purse incentive for horses that ran and won without Lasix during the 2015 meeting. 

The "Lasix-free Bonus Program" offered a 10% hike to the winner's share of the purse for horses that won without the anti-bleeder medication, which wasn't legalized at Oaklawn until the late 1980s.

"This was Charles Cella's idea," Oaklawn racing director David Longinotti said. "This was during a time when there was a lot of publicity, a lot of talk in the industry, about what some tracks were going to try to write races specifically for non-Lasix users and putting a bigger purse on them. There were a lot of different things being discussed."

In a news release announcing the bonus, Cella called Oaklawn's program "experimental" and said he hoped it would inspire more owners and trainers to race their horses without Lasix. The vast majority of horses run on the diuretic, also known as furosemide.

The program's end results were consistent at the past three full meetings. According to the Jockey Club Information Systems, there were 14,336 starters in 1,509 races at Oaklawn in 2015-17 (52, 55, and 57 race dates, respectively). Of those, 138 horses ran Lasix-free in 2015, 82 in 2016, and 64 in 2017. Oaklawn had five Lasix-free winners in 2015, four in 2016, and five last year, based on data provided by the track.

"It hasn't moved the needle," Longinotti said of the bonus, adding Oaklawn didn't know what to expect when it was introduced.

The 14 Lasix-free winners have totaled $30,900 in bonuses to date, funds that come from the track and not its purse account.

Based on the 2018 opening-day purse structure, the bonus will range from $1,200 for Oaklawn's minimum purse of $20,000 to $60,000 for the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) on closing day, April 14.

Trainer Will VanMeter had three Lasix-free winners at the 2017 Oaklawn meeting, including two with Dutch Parrot, who is campaigned by Arkansas lumberman John Ed Anthony's Shortleaf Stable.

VanMeter, 34, a former assistant to Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas and the son of prominent Kentucky sales consignor and equine veterinarian Tom VanMeter, saddled his first career winner at the 2014 Oaklawn meeting.

"I think all the horses—we hope that they will never need Lasix," said Will VanMeter, who has 15 horses at Oaklawn. "Probably, you'll see most of our horses, most of our 2-year-olds at least, make their first couple of starts without it. The majority of my horses—probably 80% of my stable—is for John Ed and what we think about how you should develop a horse, as far as the medications, is pretty much in line with each other."

Anthony, who campaigned Eclipse Award winners Temperence Hill and Vanlandingham in the 1980s, and Prairie Bayou in the early 1990s, has been a longtime hay, oats, and water advocate and had another Lasix-free winner at the 2015 Oaklawn meeting in Pangburn, then with trainer Kenny McPeek.

Dutch Parrot and Pangburn—both lightly raced 3-year-old fillies at the time—were the only horses in the field that didn't run on Lasix in their bonus victories.

Anthony has collected almost half the bonus money awarded to date ($13,110), including a record $4,980 for Dutch Parrot's victory in an Arkansas-bred allowance race last March. The race's original purse was $83,000, with $49,800 going to the winner. Anthony also has horses with trainer Brad Cox.

"As far as the bonus program at Oaklawn, it's not a significant factor in our program, although it's certainly beneficial and appreciated," Anthony said. "I encourage it be continued, but apparently too few people are inspired to want to pursue that, and I think that's unfortunate."

Other trainers with Lasix-free winners since Oaklawn introduced the program are Gary "Red Dog" Hartlage (three), Kelly Von Hemel (two), McPeek, Michael Campbell, Al Stall, Chris Rowland, Ray Shumake, and Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen with one each.

"Obviously, there's trainers that are a lot more accomplished than me, and know a lot more about horses, that want to run everything on Lasix," VanMeter said. "I think that they should be allowed to do that. That's one of the aspects that I like about the game."