Dreamin ‘bout Oaklawn in December


LITTLE ROCK — Hoist the white flag. Integrating the 1966 hit “California Dreamin’” with personal musings about whether news from the West Coast might lead to December racing at Oaklawn Park didn’t work.

The mesh of Arkansas, dreaming, and winter’s day with a California link seemed like a natural. Readers under 50 can research the lyrics to the Mamas and the Papas’ recording to gauge the lameness of “Arkansan dreamin’ ‘bout exactas on a winter’s day.”

Moving on.

To understand how a nine- or 12-day meeting in Hot Springs might attract California horses, including 2-year-olds preparing for Oaklawn’s proven 3-year-old series, a few facts:

• Three miles east of Los Angeles International Airport, Betfair Hollywood Park is closing at the end of 2013. This year, the track’s autumn meet is Nov. 7-Dec. 22.

• Responding to the shuttering of the track, the California Horse Racing Board approved 2014 racing dates with a gap in December. Del Mar will race Nov. 5-Dec. 7 and Santa Anita will resume racing Dec. 26.

• Currently, there are about 4,000 horses available to fill races in Southern California, but many of their races have only five to seven horses. During the Oaklawn meeting that ended in mid-April, the track averaged more than nine starters per race from the 1,400 horses in the stable area and another 900 or so on area farms.

• One of the problems in California is that a large percentage of the horses are under the care of about a half-dozen trainers, and that most trainers don’t want to pit his horses and owners against each other. Bob Baffert is the exception.

• If Southern California-based trainers want to race in December 2014, they can look at New Orleans, southern Florida, Hawthorne near Chicago, and Turfway Park in Florence, Ky. The weather makes racing at Hawthorne and Turfway a dicey proposition.

What if there was another alternative, a short “holiday” meet at Oaklawn between Thanksgiving and Christmas? Many of the trainers who are regulars at Oaklawn begin shipping their horses to Arkansas in November so there would be animals on the grounds.

The major selling point could be a 2-year-old stakes race that would be a bridge to the 3-year-old races at Oaklawn.

In 2012, Hollywood Park had a $750,000 race for 2-year-olds at 1 1/16-miles. Since its inaugural running in 1981, the race has produced the winner of 15 Triple Crown races. In recent years, Oaklawn’s series for 3-year-olds has proven to be an even better preparation for Triple Crown races. Since 2004, Oaklawn horses have won 10 of 30 such races, including the Preakness in mid-May with Oxbow.

The point is that Oaklawn would not have to put up huge money for 2-year-olds, that the Smarty Jones-Southwest-Rebel-Arkansas Derby is lure enough. The track could schedule a mile race for $150,000 or so in mid-December, a month prior to the Smarty Jones.

Once in Hot Springs, trainers would realize there is money to be made at Oaklawn. For example, on a recent Friday at Hollywood Park, the best maidens were running for $52,000, an allowance race had a $62,000 purse, and the cheapest claimers were competing for $17,000. At Oaklawn, purses were $53,000 for maidens and $54,000-$56,000 for allowance races. The lowest purse all season was $15,500.

For sure, the weather in December in Arkansas is no worse than it is when Oaklawn cranks up in mid-January. This year, the track scheduled 56 days and lost two to bad weather. Next year, the meet begins Jan. 10 and lasts 57 days.

Many Oaklawn regulars are Arkansas football fans, but December racing would not conflict with the Razorbacks’ regular season that ends on Thanksgiving weekend.

Just a thought.

Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is hking@arkansasnews.com.