Oaklawn opens with "flawless show"

Some Oaklawn Park newcomers got on the scoreboard quickly Friday while veterans worked behind the scenes to make opening day at the track successful.

An estimated 13,500 bundled up against the January chill for the first nine races of the 57-day meeting. At day's end, Oaklawn handled more than $4.2 million on its card, giving New York bettors an alternative after Aqueduct's weather-related cancellation along with those at Santa Anita Park in California.

Back in Hot Springs, with a threat of winter precipitation in early morning and temperatures in the 30s, Oaklawn officials were confident that the track's 114th season of live racing would begin on schedule. The opening race went off at 12:37 p.m. under bright sunshine but with a northerly breeze.

"There was nothing to be nervous about other than the weather," said Wayne Smith after his first opening day as the track's general manager. "Our team had prepared for this for eight months and put on a flawless show. Our people got ready, and we were very comfortable with how it would go."

With on-track attendance up 10 percent from last year, Smith thanked patrons for braving the elements. "Arkansas people do what they always do," he said. "They show up."

Oaklawn's deepest jockey and trainer colonies ever sliced up the $487,000 in purses. Besides the featured $125,000 Fifth Season Stakes, the track offered two $75,000 races for maiden special weights (one for Arkansas-breds) and a $78,000 allowance/optional claimer.

"Give the credit," Smith said, "to our racing office."

To that end, Director of Racing David Longinotti and Racing Secretary Pat Pope rounded up two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Doug O'Neill, whose 4-year-old gelding Dangerfield won Race 6 and 7-year-old gelding Pray Hard placed second in the meet opener.

Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, also wintering in Arkansas, booted home the fast-closing Articulator in Race 2 for trainer Billy Gowan.

"We had some of our new people from California win," said Smith, "and we also had some people who have been here for years win."

The latter group included 77-year-old trainer William "Jinks" Fires, whose 3-year-old filly Bo Peep paid $36 to win Race 7, her career debut. Including jockey Jon Court and owner-breeder Bob Yagos, of Jacksonville, Bo Peep has the same connections as its sire, 2011 Arkansas Derby winner Archarcharch.

An especially poignant moment came in Race 5 when 5-year-old mare Profound Moment ($37) got home first under Alex Birzer. Trainer Tom Van Berg recently inherited the stable of his late father, Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, who was buried in Hot Springs on Monday.

Oaklawn's average field size of 11 horses Friday is another positive sign "we'll take every day," Smith said.

Oaklawn's first Saturday includes the track's yearly food promotion -- corned-beef sandwiches for 50 cents and soft drinks for a dime, while supplies last -- and the $125,000 Pippin Stakes anchoring a nine-race card starting at 1:05 p.m. Nine more races are scheduled both Sunday, regular starting time of 1:30 p.m., and on a holiday program Monday, beginning at 1:05 p.m. Oaklawn's Triple Crown series for 3-year-olds begins Monday with seven entered in the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes at one mile.

"All bets are off about the weather on Sunday," Smith said, "but we feel pretty good about tomorrow and Monday."

Sports on 01/13/2018

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