HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Come next year, live racing won't stop at Oaklawn Park after the Arkansas Derby.
On Wednesday, the track with the highest purses of any winter-spring race meet in the country, announced it's making the most significant change to its racing schedule since World War II.
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In 2019, Oaklawn will open Friday, Jan. 25 and run through Saturday, May 4, three weeks after the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1). Other than 1945 when the track had to postpone its season until the fall of that year because of wartime restrictions, Oaklawn has traditionally concluded its annual racing season with the Arkansas Derby, which in modern time has been mid-April.
“This is a sea-change in our scheduling,” Oaklawn President Louis Cella said. “This is an idea that has been discussed internally for a number of years and now the time seems right to make the change. The quality of our program is calling on us to present racing in the most favorable weather conditions. There is nowhere in America more beautiful for great racing than Arkansas in the spring.”
Oaklawn’s 2019 racing schedule was met with enthusiasm by Arkansas Racing Commissioners, horsemen and Hot Springs business leaders.
“This is going to be great for racing and great for Arkansas,” Arkansas Racing Commission Chairman Alex Lieblong said. “I applaud Mr. Cella and Oaklawn for thinking outside the box. This is proof again of their commitment to quality racing.”
Arkansas Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association Board (HBPA) members agreed.
“We are essentially trading January race days, when there is always the chance of cancellation due to weather, for April race dates, when Arkansas weather is at its finest,” said board member Bill Walmsley, who has served as national president of the organization. “The later closing should be an additional enticement to the top racing stables to come to Arkansas. And, continuing to race following the Arkansas Derby will keep the excitement for racing going another three weeks.”
Linda Gaston, President of the Arkansas HBPA Chapter, said the shift will create more exciting days of racing.
“This makes all the sense in the world,” she said. “Oaklawn is one of the top tracks in America with some of the richest purses. It stands to reason that showcasing racing in the best possible weather will benefit the entire program. Our broad supported this plan unanimously.”
Oaklawn lost two race days this past January due to weather. Over the last decade, it has lost a total of 14 days in January due to weather.
The change to the racing calendar will also have an impact throughout the economy of Hot Springs and Central Arkansas, according to Gary Troutman, President of the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce and Metro Partnership.
“Oaklawn has always been one of the pillars of our economy,” Troutman said. “This change to the racing schedule will greatly enhance our local businesses that rely on racing fans coming to town.”
Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs, agrees. “Oaklawn continuing to race after the Arkansas Derby should be a major bonus to the tourism business in our area,” he said. “The weather is always better in April and May than it is in early January, and that will mean larger crowds at Oaklawn. This means more visitors at our hotels and restaurants, so it’s a win-win.”
Oaklawn will maintain its regular Thursday – Sunday schedule. In addition, it will race Presidents’ Day Monday, Feb. 18. The Arkansas Derby, which has become one of the most productive prep races for the Triple Crown races over the last 15 years, will be run Saturday, April 13.
“Arkansas Derby Day will still be the pinnacle of the season,” Cella said. “But now, live racing at Oaklawn will also be part of the Kentucky Derby experience three weeks later, when our racing fans will be able to cheer on the horses representing them in Louisville.”
Oaklawn has never hesitated to try new things. In the 1970’s Oaklawn founded the Racing Festival of the South and its multi-stakes card format has been copied by numerous race tracks. In the 1990’s Oaklawn was the first track to implement full-card commingled simulcasting, which is now a stable around the world. At the turn of the 21st century, Oaklawn created Instant Racing, which eventually led to the creation of Electric Games of Skill and 18 consecutive seasons of purse increases.
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