Some of the best winter dirt racing in North America is coming to the Midwest with the opening of the Oaklawn Park meet on Friday, Dec. 8. The 2023-24 season will extend until May 4, when the Oaklawn closes on the same day as the 150th Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. Racing at Oaklawn boasts big fields, good betting races for handicappers, an excellent stakes program, and very strong purses fueled by gaming revenue from the Oaklawn casino. The Hot Springs, Ark. track will offer total purse distribution for the five-month meet of $60 million with average daily purses topping $900,000.
The high-profile Oaklawn stakes schedule will be headlined by the $1.5 million Arkansas Derby, a Grade 1 race for Kentucky Derby hopefuls that will be run on March 30. Oaklawn doesn’t stop there, as the track also will offer three other races with $1.25 million purses including the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes, the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap, and the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap.
There will be enhanced television coverage of the 2024 Oaklawn meet courtesy of NYRA’s “America’s Day at the Races” program airing on Fox Sports, which will broadcast racing from Oaklawn from December to May along with action from Aqueduct this winter and Belmont Park in the spring. If you’re planning on visiting Hot Springs during the meet, check out ABR’s guide to this unique community with restaurant and shopping recommendations from Sara Dacus.
Getting to Know Oaklawn Park
For horseplayers, the Oaklawn Park meet is much more about the excellent day-to-day handicapping offerings than it is about stakes races. The dirt racing contested throughout the season at Oaklawn is on par with the best dirt racing being conducted anywhere at this time of year. Therefore, it will be a point of focus for many bettors for the winter racing season until early spring. Oaklawn will conduct live racing mainly on a three-days-a-week basis during the meet – Fridays through Sundays – with Thursdays being added during the heart of the meet in March and Monday cards on New Year’s Day and President’s Day.
Oaklawn is a dirt racing-only meet with no turf course. The Oaklawn dirt track is a one-mile oval and the vast majority of its races will be run at three distances – six furlongs, one mile, and 1 1/16 miles. There is an alternate finish line at the sixteenth pole which accommodates one-mile races with a fair run-up into the first turn.
To get a handicapping leg up at the meet, let’s start by looking at some post-position and running style preferences on the Oaklawn track layout at the various key distances of six furlongs, one mile, and 1 1/16 miles.
Oaklawn handicappers might have noticed the past few years that outside running paths have been effective regardless of a horse’s post position. There has sometimes been a discernable outside flow to many of Oaklawn’s races the past three years. In those races, outside paths were preferable on many days and when the track gets that way it isn’t uncommon to see exactas like 11-12 or 9-8 coming in. Outside trips are capable of thriving, so pay attention to stretches when the track starts favoring these paths, while also keeping in mind that it’s more difficult for horses to win with wide trips in mile races due to the short stretch run to the alternate finish line.
Oaklawn Preferred Running Styles and Post Positions
Overall, from a statistical standpoint inside speed horses and other horses from inside posts still do the best in Oaklawn routes. Post positions gradually get less effective as you go outward from the inside three posts. In a sample of 400 races at the distance of 1 1/16 miles since the 2021 Oaklawn season, the inside posts won 42% of the races, the middle posts 4-6 won 35%, and the outside posts won 24%. In terms of running styles, horses on or close to the pace (leading or within 1 ½ lengths of the lead) have won 43% of the races at 1 1/16 miles. Stalkers won 27% and closers more than four lengths off the pace at the first call won 29%.
At the distance of one mile, from a sample of 208 races run from the 2021 meet through the end of the 2022-23 meet, early speed was even more significant than at 1 1/16 miles. Nearly half (46%) of the one-mile races were won by horses on or close to the pace. Stalkers won at a rate of 30%, and 23% of the mile races were won by closers. In terms of post positions at one mile, the inside three posts were only slightly better than middle posts 4-6, while horses from the outside posts were less effective – but not extremely bad by any means – with horses breaking from posts 7 and outward winning 24% of the races.
Oaklawn Sprint Winning Profiles
At Oaklawn the past three seasons, there have been exactly 1000 races run at the sprint distance, with 940 of those held at six furlongs. In sprints, early speed is the strongly preferred running style with horses on or close to the pace winning 55% of the races, versus 27% of the sprints won by stalkers and 18% that were won by closers coming from four or more lengths off the pace. Speed horses tend to do particularly well when drawn in the inside six post positions.
In terms of post positions, there is almost no favoritism whatsoever between inside, middle, and outside posts in Oaklawn sprint races in that same 1000-race sample with an average field size of nearly nine horses per race (8.87 horses to be exact). Horses from inside posts 1-3 won 37% of the sprints while horses from middle posts won 35%. There was a drop-off for horses from posts 7 and outward, but with those horses winning 28% of the sprints, the disadvantage is mild at best. Therefore, when trying to pick winners in Oaklawn sprints, having a running style on or close to the pace is a much more important factor than post position.
Last season at Oaklawn Park represented sort of a changing of the guard in the leading jockey and trainer standings. Fans of Oaklawn had grown accustomed over many years to seeing Steve Asmussen and Ricardo Santana Jr. atop the trainer and jockey standings, but for 2022-23 new leaders emerged. We will soon find out if that trend continues this season.
The 2022-23 leading rider at Oaklawn Park was Cristian Torres, who won an even 100 races at the meet from 487 mounts for a 21% win percentage. Torres beat out second-leading rider Francisco Arrieta who won 83 races from 398 mounts for 21%. That duo was far clear of the other leading jockeys in terms of wins.
Santana was a multi-year riding champion at Oaklawn with meet titles from 2013 through 2018, and then again in 2020 and 2021 when he won 60 and 68 races, respectively. Last season, Santana won 51 races from 265 mounts – far fewer mounts the aforementioned pair – and compiled a 19% win percentage last year after having won 58 races (18%) at the 2021-’22 meet when he also finished as the third-leading rider.
David Cabrera tied with Arrieta for the Oaklawn the jockey title two years ago with 62 wins from 371 mounts, good for 17%, while Arrieta’s 62 wins came from 379 mounts (16%). Cabrera regressed last season to an extremely disappointing 27-win meet (7% winners). Arrieta, on the other hand, has enjoyed a meteoric rise up the Oaklawn Park ladder since 2021 when he burst onto the scene with 50 wins from 305 mounts (16%). Arrieta will once again be in the mix for leading rider at the 2023-24 meet along with Torres, while Santana should continue as one of the top win percentage riders at the meet, thanks in large part to his role as first-call rider for Asmussen. As Asmussen goes at Oaklawn, so goes Santana.
A couple of other top jockeys you can expect to see at Oaklawn this season will be Isaac Castillo, who was fourth-leading rider last year with 48 wins from 388 mounts for 12%, and Rafael Bejarano, who was fifth-leading rider last year with 42 wins. Kentucky-based Julien Leparoux, who has ridden mainly in Florida during the winter over the past decade-plus, will set up shop at Oaklawn for the 2023-24 meet. And Ramon Vazquez, who finished fourth in wins during Oaklawn’s 2021 and 2022 meets (43 and 44 wins respectively, good for 18% and 15%) has returned to Hot Springs for the upcoming meet after riding in California during winter 2022-23.
A wild card in the Oaklawn jock’s room is Joel Rosario, who wins at a very high percentage when he makes assorted appearances at Oaklawn throughout the season. Rosario had seven Oaklawn wins from 34 mounts for 21% last year and won 27 times from 116 mounts for 23% the year before. Rosario announced he would ride mainly at Santa Anita Park in California during the winter and spring but should still be at Oaklawn assigned to a few choice mounts – possibly one or two of them being Kentucky Derby hopefuls trained by Bob Baffert.
Oaklawn Top Trainers
Asmussen is the 12-time leading trainer at Oaklawn, but he lost his training title at the 2022-23 meet to Robertino Diodoro, who led with 61 winners from 266 starters for 23%. Asmussen was second with 56 winners but had far more starters (414) and a much lower win percentage (14%). Asmussen had set a new high-water mark two years ago when he won 65 races – and three seasons ago with fewer race dates, Asmussen set the Oaklawn all-time single-season mark for purse earnings with just over $6 million. Asmussen now has nearly 900 career victories at Oaklawn, so even though he lost the 2022-23 title, he’s not going anywhere and will remain a perennial threat to lead all trainers at the meet.
Diodoro, who also was leading trainer at Oaklawn Park in 2020, will be at or near the top of the standings once again, although he is currently serving out a suspension that will end in late December. Asmussen and Diodoro will face stiff competition from Brad Cox, a big gun on the national stage who appears to favor Fair Grounds at this time of year but still committed more resources than ever to Oaklawn last season and won 24 races from 114 starters for 21%.
Handicappers should take note that Asmussen has started slowly at Oaklawn’s extended five-month season format both of the last two years and thus may not be expected to win at this usual high percentage there during the month of December. On the other hand, Cox gets off to fast starts at Oaklawn. He won three of 12 starts during the December portion of last year’s Oaklawn meet and had blazing hot starts two and three years ago when he won nine times with his first 23 starters (39%) two years ago and with five of his first 13 starters (38%) three years back. In addition to Cox’s 21% meet last year, he posted a 31-for-131 (24%) overall record in 2021-22 and had 29 wins from 107 starters (27%) at the 2021 meet.
Two other trainers to watch are Chris Hartman, who had an excellent meet in 2022-23 with 37 wins from 145 starters for 26%, and Norm Casse, who won 13 races from 38 starters for 34% last season and has continued to win at high percentages almost everywhere his horses have competed this year. Some other trainers who enjoy annual success at Oaklawn include Cipriano Contreras, Ingrid Mason, Karl Broberg, Martin Villafranco, and Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas. Ron Moquett was fifth-leading trainer last year with 19 victories.
There are five months of great racing ahead at the Oaklawn Park meet, so don’t overlook this high-quality winter-spring season. Factor Oaklawn’s prevailing biases and top human connections into your handicapping, and you will have a big advantage over many of your fellow horseplayers. Best of luck and enjoy the Oaklawn racing season.