Oaklawn closes on high note
HOT SPRINGS — At least it ended well.
Oaklawn President Louis Cella reached for a common golf analogy to help state his thoughts on the final two days of racing at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort.
“It was kind of like making a 20-foot putt on the 18th green at the end of a bad day of golf,” Cella said. “It’s what brings you back.”
Odds-on favorites Nadal and Charlatan, each from the California barn of Hall of
Fame trainer Bob Baffert, won their divisions of the two-division Grade
I $500,000 Arkansas Derby on Saturday to help conclude the racetrack’s 57day 2020 season.
The final day drew worldwide racing and gambling interest and a record handle of over $41 million, though fans were limited to televised or internet coverage or a place on lawn chairs, car hoods or tailgates just outside of the racing ground’s chain-link fence that runs the length of the backstretch east of the track.
“[Oaklawn racing secretary] Pat Pope and his racing office absolutely put together the best racing card in our history,” Cella said. “They were given a charge, once we changed all of our stakes and our schedule, to go out and put together the races for that day and Friday, as well. Friday was spectacular. Our Fantasy truly was the Kentucky Oaks. The caliber was that great.”
Fan-free racing will endure as the earmark of Oaklawn’s season, marred throughout by the coronavirus pandemic, the global calamity that reached the U.S. and Arkansas early into Oaklawn’s season.
“Our fans love horse racing,” Cella said. “We know in Arkansas and at Oaklawn, if we put on a really good show, folks are going to show up.”
Construction had started on casino expansion and a new hotel, a combination on track property that figured to limit parking from the first day of racing on Jan. 24 through Saturday’s Arkansas Derbies, but as a result of an influx of the virus in March, Oaklawn closed its racetrack to fans March 13 and its casino two days later.
Oaklawn soon instituted measures that it hoped would allow racing to prevail, foremost among them a regular temperature check for horsemen, Oaklawn employees, indispensable racing personnel and media members.
“We’re pretty fortunate we had the kind of owner who brought us through the tough times, because he could’ve said, ‘to heck with it,’ and closed the doors pretty easy,” trainer Robertino Diodoro said.
Racing continued uninterrupted, even as sports across the state and nation were suspended, just as were most nonessential businesses.
Among horsemen, Diodoro won the season training title with 52 wins. Ten-time Oaklawn training champion Steve Asmussen was second with 48, though he led the track in purses earned with $4,088,116. Jockey Ricardo Santana Jr., won his seventh riding championship with 60 wins. Martin Garcia was next with 55.
Diodoro said he credits Oaklawn management for its help to make the track one of five in the U.S. to remain open.
“It’s nice to have an owner of a racetrack who cares that much about horses, horsemen and just racing overall,” Diodoro said. “You don’t find that at every racetrack, and you definitely don’t find it like you find it at Oaklawn, and I think that’s a trickle-down effect. It starts with Mr. Cella, and it goes down through management, and, in a normal season or a normal day at Oaklawn, with the fans, and it even goes into the city. There aren’t that many towns with a racetrack like Hot Springs where you hear all the time, ‘Hey, you’re from Oaklawn,’ or, ‘Hey, how are things at the racetrack.’
“Most of these cities, you go a few blocks away, and they barely know there’s a racetrack down the road.”
“Our horsemen, and of course management, all worked together because if we didn’t, we weren’t going to have a season,” Cella said. “It’s as simple as that. In that regard, we’re quite proud to have been able to pull this off.”
Cella said he could not wait for brighter days and Oaklawn’s 2021 season. Diodoro spoke in agreement Monday as he drove a trailer full of racehorses from Oaklawn to Texas.
“We’ve only been off two days, or whatever, and we’re already counting the days,” he said. “We’re looking forward to getting back in January and being back with a grandstand full of fans. That will be pretty nice.”