Submitted by Noel Michaels on Monday, February 8, 2016 at 12:00 AM
Winter dirt racing is in full force at Oaklawn Park, and the best part of the meet is still yet to come over the course of February, March, and early April as the track marches on to Arkansas Derby Day on Saturday, April 16. When the weather heats up, so does the action at Oaklawn. Oaklawn Park is one of the many tracks that is always on our radar when it comes to picking winners, and making serious pari-mutuel money.
Oaklawn Park is just one of the many pathways to the Kentucky Derby, with prep races like the Southwest Stakes and the Rebel leading up to the Arkansas Derby. This will be highlighted this year more than ever since the Rebel and Arkansas Derby was the pathway taken by American Pharoah in 2015 on the road to his eventual Triple Crown.
Among our picks in the coming weeks, in addition to the Rebel and Arkansas Derby, and more, will be Oaklawn's Southwest Stakes for 3-year-olds on President's Day, Monday February 15. If the race is anything like last year's running, it should be a heckuva day, because last year we released a giant winning exacta and trifecta box in the Southwest Stakes when our 20-1 longshot selection, The Truth or Else, hit the exotics along with two of the top 3-year-old divisional leaders at the time, Far Right and Mr. Z. The exacta paid off to the tune of $173.80, and the trifecta returned a whopping $699.80.
That was just one example of the big money there is to be made at Oaklawn Park. We got it in last year's Southwest Stakes, and we're ready again this season.
Looking farther down the road at this meet at Oaklawn Park, the Arkansas Derby is the centerpiece of the track's "Racing Festival of the South," a closing-week, stakes-filled mega event from April 9-16, when the track runs nine major stakes races, including the Oaklawn Handicap, the Apple Blossom, the Count Fleet Sprint, and the Fantasy, and of course the $1 million Arkansas Derby.
Oaklawn Park's Racing Festival of the South Stakes 2016 Schedule
3-yo fillies, 1 1/16 miles
Count Fleet Sprint-G3
4-yo & up, 6 furlongs
4 & up, fillies and mares, 6F
Fillies and mares, 1 1/8 miles
3-yo, 6 furlongs
3-yo, 1 1/8 miles
4-yo & up, 1 1/8 miles
3-yo fillies, 1 mile
The Northern Spur
3-yo colts & geldings, 1 mile
The Southwest Stakes, to be run on Monday, Feb. 15, got a purse boost in 2016 from $300,000 last year to $500,000 this year. That kind of money for a February Kentucky Derby prep race is sure to draw a large field. A full field of quality 3-year-olds is taking shape for the race, including the Bob Baffert-trained, Collected, who won the G3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita in his most recent start.
There is also a large group of locals ready for the Southwest, including some top finishers from last month's Smarty Jones Stakes such as the winner, Discreetness, and the runner-up, Gordy Florida, as well as possibly the third- and fourth-place horses, Synchrony and Luna de Loco. Another probable for the race is Suddenbreakingnews, who narrowly lost the $250,000 Springboard Mile in his last start at Remington Park. Possibles include Bird of Trey (4th in the Jerome at Aqueduct), Gray Sky (5th in Smarty Jones), Z Royal (5th in Lecomte at Fair Grounds), and Cutacorner and American Dubai (1st and 2nd in a recent Oaklawn optional claiming race).
One thing is sure, whoever comprises the final field for the race, we will be on top of all of the racing and wagering in the big races and every other race from Oaklawn in search of the next great mega-exotic release.
Oaklawn Handicapping Guide
Oaklawn Park generally does not get the notoriety of the other key winter meets from around the country, due in large part to the fact that Oaklawn does not have a turf course. Nevertheless, the day-to-day dirt racing at Oaklawn, featuring big fields, is nearly on par with anyone else running at this time of year, especially in the Midwest.
Handicapping at Oaklawn Park has its nuances, and it pays to pay attention to the daily happenings at the meet. While the racing surface is mostly regarded as fair at Oaklawn, the track does have some prevailing biases to watch out for, in addition to some occasional track biases that tend to pop-up here and there in terms of inside or outside paths, or speed or off-the-pace running style biases as the weather tends to change track conditions from day to day.
The Oaklawn dirt course is a one-mile oval with two different finish lines - the traditional finish line and an auxiliary finish line at the sixteenth pole which serves as the finish for one-mile races. This makes the run-up into the first turn longer at a mile and therefore lessens the disadvantages to outside posts. The second finish line has, in fact, made a big difference for Oaklawn horseplayers, raising the overall success rate for outside gates in route races to be nearly equal to inside posts, which in the past had always been strongly advantageous in Oaklawn routes.
Inside posts, and particularly the rail, are generally still good at all distances. However, the drop-off from inside-to-outside is not really as dramatic as it used to be at Oaklawn, especially in route races where the inside posts once ruled, but now, thanks in part to the auxiliary one-mile finish line at the sixteenth pole, horses can have relatively fair shots from almost any gate.
Instead of using post positions to help you narrow down the fields when handicapping Oaklawn, a better idea these days is to use horses' running styles, and combine them with a careful eye on the track's changing track biases when hunting for Oaklawn winners.
At Oaklawn, the tried-and-true prevailing running-style bias is always toward horses with early speed, or at least tactical speed, who can stay within no more than 2-3 lengths of the early lead. Due to the one-mile Oaklawn track layout and relatively short stretch-run in comparison to other tracks (even shorter stretch-run at one mile), Oaklawn always has been this way and probably always will be - except on days when the bias changes and noticeably favors one particular running style over another, on days when weather wreaks havoc, or in races that feature speed duels or hotly-contested paces.
I suggest using track bias information in your continued handicapping at Oaklawn and keep track for yourself how the track plays daily. When you see a horse exiting a race on a bias day, check the horse's running style, post position, or inside/outside trip on the bias day in question. When a horse exits a race where it benefited from running with a track bias, downgrade that horse in the race you're currently handicapping. When you see a horse that exits a race where it was hurt by running against a track bias, then go ahead and upgrade that horse in the race you're currently handicapping. This is a great way to find good-odds winners and to ensure that you are betting live overlays while at the same time ignoring bad underlays.
Trip Notes and Horses to Watch From Early in the 2016 Meet
AFTER HOURS: First starter made a strong late charge too late after getting bothered out of the gate in a slow start. Third in that debut, and may not remain a maiden for long.
CLASSIC BO: Overcame traffic into the turn and then a shuffle back in traffic to run second. His turn to win next time with w clean trip.
FAR RIGHT: Blew the break to start way far back in much heralded return from a layoff, then closed strong but settled for second. Remains on track for the Oaklawn Handicap.
FLYING POSSE: Fell back into the turn and then came again to just miss by a neck and a head in first race since Churchill last November. Try again.
GONE PREACHIN: Closed well for second behind only a loose lone speed wire-to-wire winner. Needed the race off a three-month layoff, so beware next time.
GOSPEL ABE: Tried to rally too wide from too far back and got caught in late traffic and had to settle for fourth. Can rebound.
GREELEY'S COMET: Got shuffled back at the start in sprint prep return race off a six-month layoff. Prepped and ready for next time.
HOLY MOCACCHINO: Hawthorne invader got caught in a three-way battle for the lead and held on best for second to lose only to a perfect set-up deep closer. Don't overlook again.
LAWYER DAGGETT: Kentucky invader battled up on a fast pace and held on to just miss in second in-between a pair of closers that finished 1-3. Can win next in return from the three-month layoff.
MISTY JOURNEY: Got roughed up in the stretch when off the board off a six-month layoff. Needed the race and will improve next time in second off the layoff.
SARAH SIS: Unlucky loser of the American Beauty after getting caught in a speed duel and never getting a breather up front. Just god nipped and was clear of the third horse and can make amends.
SAY HEY KID: Got hooked in a seven-length-gap speed duel and still held on for third in a race that set-up for the favored closers. Looms a threat to shake loose up front.
SEATTLE TRAIN: Ran well upon arrival from Hawthorne despite breaking slowly when not handling the rail post position and chasing a loose lone speed winner. Just needs to get away from the rail draw.
TALK SHOW: Nearly won her sprint prep career debut race with a late rally and overcame some interference in the land to be second. Set to graduate, especially if stretched out.
TORRONTES: Was closing the gap late when cut-off and interfered with down inside in deep stretch. Worth another look with a clean trip.
W. B. SMUDGE: Outran 18-1 odds for third in the King Cotton despite a bad start, traffic on the turn, and then getting sandwiched in mid-stretch.
There are still two months remaining in the Oaklawn meet, so there's still plenty of time to get your slice of the dough. Keep track of these and your own horses to watch the rest of the way, and use these tips to help you cash some good tickets at Oaklawn. Make sure not to miss the upcoming Southwest Stakes, and of course Oaklawn's best week of racing at the Racing Festival of the South, including the Arkansas Derby. Best of luck, enjoy the meet!