Oaklawn opening day
Two horses in last year’s Kentucky Derby ready for season.
HOT SPRINGS — Oaklawn Park’s live racing season, scheduled for 57 days, is set to break from the gates at 12:35 p.m. today when a field of 12 3-year-old fillies match up at 6 furlongs.
On a day when more than $420,000 in purse money will be distributed over nine races, the winning connections of the first race — a maiden claimer — reap $15,600 from the $26,000 overall purse.
That’s important money to those involved in the daily grind of thoroughbred racing, but not the ultimate goal for those who labor day after day on the backstretch, and not the reason some of the top 3-year-olds in the nation have taken up residence at Oaklawn.
Aspirations among horsemen vary along a nearly infinite spectrum, but many at Oaklawn have a common dream, one that involves a run of success over the next three months that leads to the pinnacle of racing — the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday of May.
The first steps are underway.
Two horses currently stabled at Oaklawn ran in last season’s Kentucky Derby, a target met through their performances in Oaklawn’s Derby prep series last winter and spring.
Whitmore, trained by Ron Moquett, is entered for Sunday, though a weather-based decision on his participation won’t come until as little as minutes before the start.
The other 2016 Derby starter on the grounds, Sudden breaking news, trained by Donnie K. Von Hemel, won’t race before next week.
Snowfall and frigid weather eliminated four days of training last week and kept Sudden breaking news off the track long enough for Von Hemel to exercise caution with his star, who has not raced since a 5th-place finish in the West Virginia Derby on Aug. 6.
“We ended up missing too much time for a horse that hadn’t run in several months to be at his best,” Von Hemel
said. “There are some possibilities in the coming week. A lot of it will have to do with
whether races fill or not. We’ll have to wait and see how it all shakes out.”
Before weather intervened, Von Hemel said he hoped to run Sudden breaking news in today’s $125,000 Fifth Season Stakes, a 11/ 16- mile race for horses 4-years-old and up.
Sudden breaking news finished fifth in last season’ s Kentucky Derby, 7 lengths behind winner Nyquist, but less than a neck out of third.
“The main thing as a trainer going into the Derby is, you know there’s 20 horses, so you just want your horse to show up and run as much as he could run,” Von Hemel said. “He showed up and ran his race, and, for me, I was very satisfied with what he did in the Derby.”
Von Hemel said horses like Sudden breaking news help keep him in the game.
“That’s what we’re all out here banging our heads for,” Von Hemel said. “It’s always
an exciting special time. If you’ve been in the business for a long time, you understand how special having a horse run in the Derby is.”
Whitmore is entered in a 6-furlong allowance-optional claiming race Sunday, but Moquett said he will assess the track conditions before Whitmore starts.
“It’ll have to be safe for him,” Moquett said. “If I’m confident it is, we feel good about our chances.”
Moquett will be represented in The Fifth Season by 7-year-old horse For Greater Glory, who has earned $331,245 in 31 career starts, with more than a third of that coming at Oaklawn.
“If the others go out too fast, I really like our chances,” Moquett said.
Discreetness, winner of last year’s Smarty Jones and a participant in all four of Oaklawn’s Derby preps, fell just short of the making the
Derby Field. Nevertheless, his performances and ability were enough to inspire trainer Jinks Fires.
“Those kind of horses that show a lot of promise, they make you get up every morning,” Fires said. “They make you show up at the barn every morning feeling great.”
Discreetness, who drew the rail for today’s Fifth Season, will be making his first start since two unsuccessful turf races, the last coming Nov. 12 at Churchill Downs.
“I’m pretty optimistic that we have a shot to come running if everything goes well,” Fires said.
Oaklawn racing secretary Pat Pope said the timing of last weekend’s cold and snow, while far from ideal, could have been much worse.
“Weather would not have been good to us last week,” Pope said. “But here we are, and there’s no doubt we’re opening tomorrow. For this
time of year, the weather’s perfect.”
The National Weather Service predicts a high of 52 with a 40 percent chance of rain this afternoon in Hot Springs.
“Everybody I talked to over at the track is happy we don’t have ice or snow,” Discreetness owner Dwight Pruett said. “I think we’re kind of looking forward to the rain instead of that.”
Training was suspended for four days because of the freezing temperatures.
Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas has Mr. Z, a 2015 Kentucky Derby entrant, in the the Fifth Season. He said he is always eager for the Oaklawn season begin.
“There’s a great atmosphere around this track, and the whole community endorses it,” Lukas said. “I don’t think there’s any area in the United States that appreciates racing more than they do here.”
Exercise riders leave the stable area and head to the racing track at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs on Thursday. According to the National Weather Service, a chance of rain is expected in the area today when the racing season officially begins. Nine races are Stakes slated to take place, including the $125,000 Fifth Season.