By Lynne Snierson
Florent Geroux is packing his tack and moving to Oaklawn Park this season. The addition of one of the nation’s top riders to the already intensely competitive jockey colony makes a declarative statement about the racing quality at the 117-year-old Arkansas track.
“It’s the place to be,” said Doug Bredar, the agent for Geroux, a winner of seven Breeders’ Cup races — the 2020 Distaff and Juvenile Fillies Turf being the latest — as well as last year’s Kentucky Oaks. “We’re very excited.”
The 57-day meet opens on Jan. 22, and it’s easy to see why Geroux and his agent are excited – the rider has the call on a bunch of champions trained by Brad Cox.
A shoo-in as an Eclipse Award finalist for top trainer, Cox will have a powerhouse 40-horse division that includes eight-time Grade 1 winner Monomoy Girl. The sensational mare, who won her second BC Distaff with Geroux in the irons, was sold to Spendthrift Farm for $9.5 million and returned to Cox for a 2021 campaign.
Other Grade 1 winners in the barn are: Essential Quality, the 2020 BC Juvenile winner and likely overwhelming choice as champion 2-year-old male; Aunt Pearl, the undefeated winner of the BC Juvenile Fillies Turf; and Kentucky Oaks heroine Shedaresthedevil.
Geroux is also the regular rider for both fillies and the go-to guy for Cox. With pandemic protocols and travel restrictions still in place and precautions being taken at tracks around the country it makes sense for him to be right there in Hot Springs. It sure makes it easier to retain the star mounts and pick up more.
“With these crazy pandemic rules and so forth you have to make a decision where you’re going to be based,” said Bredar, currently based at winter headquarters in New Orleans. “Obviously, in the past we’ve done very, very well at the Fair Grounds and we enjoy it here, but on a week-to-week, day-to-day thing it can be kind of slow sometimes and the weekday cards aren’t quite as strong as the big day cards.
“This will be exciting to get somewhere where there are three to four really nice maiden specials and allowance races or stakes on a daily basis. And you can’t beat the money.”
That’s a sure bet.
The average daily purses have risen to an astounding $700,00 and the 33 stakes race program is worth $11 million. Overall, it the richest purse structure in track history.
For this season, which runs through May 1, all stakes, even those restricted to Arkansas-breds, offer a minimum of $150,000 and 21 of them saw a purse hike of at least $25,000 over last year. Eleven of the stakes are graded and they include the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) on April 10 and the Apple Blossom (G1), where Monomoy Girl is being pointed, on April 17.
The stakes schedule is also highlighted by four races for 3-year-olds that serve as important steps on the road the Kentucky Derby, offering progressive qualifying points to the Run for the Roses.
The series kicks off on opening day with the $150,000 Smarty Jones at 1 mile, continues with the $750,000 Southwest (G3) at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 15, the $1 million Rebel (G2) at 1 1/16 miles on March 13, and concludes with the 1 1/8 mile Arkansas Derby and its 170 Derby points (100-40-20-10).
Oaklawn also offers a lucrative three-race points series for the Kentucky Oaks, the Derby’s sister race for 3-year-old fillies. It consists of the $200,000 Martha Washington on Jan. 30, the $300,000 Honeybee (G3) on March 6 and the $600,000 Fantasy (G3) on April 3.
“We’ve got a good group of 3-year-old colts and fillies,” Cox said. “This is, obviously, the best 3-year-old program in the country for both, colts and fillies. I think we’ll have an impact in both divisions.”
There is plenty of opportunity for older horses, too, and Oaklawn again has attracted top level trainers from around the country to fill the 1,500 stalls on the backside.
Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas is back with 34 horses, Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen has filled 45 stalls, and Hot Springs resident Ron Moquett, who is bringing back 2020 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Whitmore for another campaign, has a stable of 40. Southern California top trainers John Sadler, Phil D’Amato, Doug O’Neill, and Peter Miller will be also be well represented.
The new rule curtailing whip use in California and the major change for 2021 in that state’s medication policy which bans Lasix in graded stakes for older horses will help fill the Oaklawn entry box.
Bredar knows Geroux’ business will be brisk.
“We’ve talked to some trainers and the ones who’ve used us in the past will certainly be using us again. I’ve talked to John Sadler and he’s very interested, and I believe Tom Amoss will run horses there,’’ he said. “We ride for Brian Williamson, Peter Miller, Wayne Catalano, Larry Jones, Mike Maker and a lot of the Kentucky guys. We’re certainly open to riding for anybody.”
This meet will be the first with the newly constructed on-track hotel, which is part of a major construction project that has included another expansion of the track’s popular casino.
“We would not be able to once again offer record purses if it weren’t for the tremendous support we’ve received from the Arkansas Racing Commission, the horsemen, and our fans in 2020,” Lou Cella, president of Oaklawn, said in a press release.
“We are excited to continue building on our ‘New Level of Excellence,’ which will include our new hotel, event center, state-of-the-art spa, and additional restaurants, which are on schedule to open by early 2021.”
Also, a limited amount of fans in certain areas of the track will be permitted in keeping with COVID-19 restrictions.
There’s been a revamping of Oaklawn’s signature Racing Festival of the South, too.
Normally compacted into a week at the end of the season, the races for the first time will be spaced out across three successive Saturdays. The races include the $600,000 Fantasy (G3) and the $200,000 Purple Martin on April 3; the $1 million Arkansas Derby, the $500,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3), the $400,000 Oaklawn Mile, and the $250,000 Carousel on April 10; and the $1 million Oaklawn Handicap (G2) and the $1 million Apple Blossom (G1) on April 17.
The meet wraps up on May 1 with the $300,000 Oaklawn Invitational, which has carried an automatic berth into the Preakness (G1).