Submitted by Noel Michaels on Wednesday, January 23, 2019 at 10:23 AM
OAKLAWN SET TO OPEN EXPANDED SEASON OF MIDWEST WINTER DIRT RACING
Top winter dirt racing is ready to return to the Midwest with the opening of the Oaklawn Park meet on Friday, Jan. 25 in a newly-expanded racing season this year that will extend three-weeks past the track's usual mid-April closing date for the first time, all way up to Kentucky Derby Day, Saturday, May 4. Freezing temperatures in January usually will mean a slow start to the season, but as the weather warms up, so does the quality of racing and wagering at Oaklawn. The best part of the meet will come mainly over the course of March and April.
Oaklawn Park features one of the country's best 3-year-old stakes programs as the track marches on through winter and spring to Arkansas Derby Day, which this year will be on Saturday, April 13. Oaklawn's pathway to the Kentucky Derby wastes no time kicking off, with its first prep the Smarty Jones stakes at one mile worth $150,000 will headline the opening day card. That will be followed by the rest of the prep races schedule including the G3 $500,000 Southwest Stakes on President's Day February 18, and the G2 $1 million Rebel Stakes at 1 1/16-miles on Saturday, March 16 leading up to the G1 $1 million Arkansas Derby. The Arkansas Derby is the centerpiece of the track's "Racing Festival of the South" on April 12-14, when the track runs five Graded stakes including the G2 Oaklawn Handicap, the G1 Apple Blossom, the G3 Count Fleet Sprint, and the G3 Fantasy for 3-year-old fillies.
The 3-year-old stakes scene at Oaklawn Park usually gets a major boost each year with the constant presence of Bob Baffert, who ships in regularly from California with prime contenders for the Southwest, Rebel, and Arkansas Derby such as he did with eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and so many others. Expect more of the same this year, especially with the purse of the Rebel raised to $1 million this season.
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 and good betting races - 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 alternate 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 in one-mile races, raising the overall success rate for middle posts and making outside gates nearly equal to inside posts, which in the past always had been advantageous nearly all the time in Oaklawn routes.
Inside posts, and particularly the rail, are generally still good at all distances, especially at 6F. The drop-off from inside-to-outside is not really as dramatic as it used to be at Oaklawn at the other distances, especially in one mile races. Now, the rail and inside posts are much more effective at 1 1/16 miles, where they are the preferred post draws. At one mile, however, the middle posts 4-7 are preferred.
If you are using post positions to help you narrow down the fields when handicapping Oaklawn, it would be a good idea to combine post position preferences with a careful eye on the track's changing prevailing biases when it comes to running style preferences.
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 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 to some degree.
Early speed horses that race on or within two lengths of the early lead have the preferred running style at each of Oaklawn's three most commonly-run distances, 6F, 1M, and 1 1/16 miles. According to stats from the 2018 Oaklawn meet, 6F was the kindest to front-runners, who enjoyed a 30% winning percentage at that disatnce. The seldom-run 5 1/2F distance was even more speed-favoring with 5 of 13 winners (38%) going wire-to-wire. Meanwhile, 23% of all one mile races were won wire-to-wire, and 28% of the races at 1 1/16 miles were won wire-to-wire.
OAKLAWN JOCKEYS AND TRAINERS
The dominating humans to focus on at Oaklawn Park tend to be STEVE ASMUSSEN in the trainer's race and RICARDO SANTANA JR. in the jockey standings. Both won their respective titles again in 2018 after also enjoying highly successful meets in 2017. Asmussen earned his ninth trainer title with 44 wins in 2018 and can usually be counted on for at least that many victories after clicking for 41 wins in 2017 and 46 wins and an Oaklawn record $3,448,729 in earnings in 2016 (thanks in part to Creator's win in the Arkasnas Derby that year).
Ricardo Santana, meanwhile, earned his sixth straight riding title in 2018 with 69 wins, which was a good season by any other yardstick but his own after having won the 2016 riding title with a startling 80 victories and $4,064,073 in purses, which also was an Oaklawn record. In 2017 Santana was coming off a relative down year for him with 53 wins, still enough for the title.
Both Asmussen and Santana form a deadly trainer/jockey combination and should be able to once again lead the way in their respective leaderboards throughout the Oaklawn season.
The new man on the scene in the Oaklawn jockeys standings this season will be Joe Bravo, who will move his tack here instead of Gulfstream Park, where he's spent recent winters. It certainly will add to the overall quality of Oaklawn's jock's room to have Bravo riding regularly all season, and while he no doubt will make his presence felt it is unsure whether he will be able to challenge Santana for the title, or even approach David Cabrera for the second spot in terms of winners at the meet. Cabrera was second in the Oaklawn jockey's standings last season with 43 wins. He then went on to be the second-leading rider at Prairie Meadows before winning the meet riding title last fall at Remington Park. Overall, Cabrera ranked 11th nationally in wins in 2018 with 236, and he along with Santana and Bravo should comprise the top three slots in the jockey standings this season.
Santana's old Oaklawn Park nemesis Ramon Vazquez can no longer keep up with Santana in terms of wins but should win enough races to hang around in the top 5 in the standings. In 2016, for example, Santana battled it out all season with Vazquez, who finished only 6 wins behind with 47 victories. Last year Vazquez dropped to fourth in the standings with 34 wins. Oaklawn former up-and-comer, Alex Canchari who won 45 races at the 2017 meet, won only 25 times in 2018, good for seventh in the standings. He should do about the same again this year.
In the trainer standings Steve Asmussen was again Oaklawn's leading trainer in 2018, when he won 44 races which was 12 races more than the next-leading conditioner, Robertino Diodoro, who finished second in the standings for the second year in a row. Diodoro started to become a major factor at Oaklawn three years ago when he won 22 races from 70 starters in 2016 for a giant 31% win percentage. He followed that up with a big 31-win season at Oaklawn in 2017, including big numbers in terms of winning percentage (25%) and ITM percentage (52%).
Former Oaklawn leading trainer Chris Hartman continued his decline locally last season with he finished sixth in the trainer's standings with 18 wins. He finished a distant second to Asmussen in the 2016 trainer standings and before that had been 2015's leading trainer at Oaklawn with very strong numbers (129-34-21-14, $1.1 million, 26%/53%). Hartman was only average in 2017, however, winning only 21 times with just an average win percentage (16%) and ITM percentage (42%).
Who will be the best alternatives to Asmussen and Diodoro for bettors at Oaklawn this season? My money will be on Brad Cox, who was fourth in in the 2018 standings with 27 wins and third in the 2017 trainer's standings with 26 wins, which he accomplished with only 94 starters to lead all major trainers at Oaklawn with a 28% win percentage. His ITM percentage can also be counted on to be very good at around 50%.. Federico Villafranco is also often another good bet based on the fact that he is extremely consistent at Oaklawn. He won 20 races at No.5 in the standings in 2018 after compiling nearly identical 22-win, 17%-win percentage seasons in both 2017 and 2016. Ron Moquett is coming off of a very strong 28-win showing at the 2018 Oaklawn meet and will have a similar string of horses based locally again this season.
Two other trainers to take note of this season at Oaklawn will be Larry Jones, who will be returning to action with a small 15-horse stable of mostly young horses that should be counted on to win at a high percentage, and hall-of-famer Nick Zito, who will be a newcomer to Oaklawn with a strong of 20 horses this wineter.
There are more than three months of great racing ahead at the annual Oaklawn Park meet, so there will be plenty of time for to get your slice of the pari-mutuel winnings as long as you don't overlook this quality annual winter/spring racing season. Best of luck, and enjoy the meet at Oaklawn!
By Noel Michaels