The feeling will be slightly different but the racing should be as good as ever when Oaklawn Park opens the doors Friday for its 2018 meet, which runs 57 days through April 14.
The meet will sadly be the first in nearly 50 years without track president Charles Cella at the helm. Cella, who passed away last month at the age of 81, has been succeeded in that position by his son Louis.
Purses offered during the meet are estimated at $30 million, $8.525 million of which is designated to stakes. The traditional meet highlight is the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) on closing day. The $900,000 Rebel (G2) on March 17, $500,000 Southwest (G3) on February 19, and $150,000 Smarty Jones next Monday, January 15, are the other leading classic preps and all are part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby series.
Other highlights of the meet include the $500,000 Razorback H. (G3) on February 19, won last year by presumptive Horse of the Year Gun Runner and a potential Dubai World Cup (G1) prep. In addition to the Arkansas Derby, the Racing Festival of the South on April 13-14 also features the $700,000 Apple Blossom (G1) for fillies and mares, the $750,000 Oaklawn H. (G2), the $400,000 Fantasy (G3) for three-year-old fillies, and the $400,000 Count Fleet Sprint H. (G3).
Friday’s nine-race opening day card is highlighted by the $125,000 Fifth Season for older horses at 1 1/16 miles.
Untrapped was battle-tested against the nation’s top three-year-olds in 2017, but managed just a single win late in the year in the Oklahoma Derby (G3). It was a significant victory, however, as runner-up Battle of Midway rebounded to win the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) at Del Mar.
Untrapped placed in six other stakes last season: the Lecomte (G3), Risen Star (G2), Rebel, Ohio Derby (G3), Indiana Derby (G3), and in the Zia Park Derby in his most recent start on November 22. The Fifth Season will mark the Steve Asmussen trainee’s first start against older rivals.
An honest pace from the likes of Sightforsoreeyes, Dan the Go to Man, and Grade 3 winner Stickstatelydude appears likely. In addition to Untrapped, that could benefit local veterans Shotgun Kowboy and Dazzling Gem, who is cross-entered in a stakes at Fair Grounds on Saturday.
Far Right won the 2015 editions of the Southwest and Smarty Jones, but is winless since taking an allowance over this track last February. He loves it in Hot Springs, though, where’s run first or second five times in six attempts. Sonneteer, a maiden when he rallied for second in the Rebel last March, enters off a close third in a Los Alamitos allowance while sporting blinkers for the first time.
Post time for opening day will be 12:30 p.m. (CST).