Some of the country’s top winter dirt racing is coming to the Midwest with the opening of the Oaklawn Park meet on Friday, Dec. 9. The 68-day racing season will extend until Kentucky Derby day, May 6. 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 host 45 stakes races offering purses of $13.75 million, and the total purse distribution for the five-month meet is projected to top $50 million. With that kind of money floating around, you know the quality of the racing will be strong.
The Oaklawn stakes program is headlined by the $1.25 million Arkansas Derby, a Grade 1 race that will be run on April 1. Oaklawn doesn’t stop there, however, they also will offer three other races with million-dollar purses including the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes on Feb. 25, the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap on April 15, and the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap on April 22.
Getting to know Oaklawn Park
The day-to-day 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 should be a point of focus for handicappers for the winter racing season.
Racing will be hosted mainly on a three-days-a-week basis, Fridays through Sundays, plus holidays. Thursdays will be added during the heart of the meet in March.
Oaklawn, which has no turf course, runs the vast majority of its races at three distances, six furlongs, one mile, and 1 1/16 miles on the main track. The Oaklawn dirt track is a one-mile oval with two different finish lines, including an alternate finish line at the sixteenth pole which serves as the finish for one-mile races. The second finish line has made a big difference for Oaklawn handicappers in one-mile races, raising the overall success rate for middle and outside post positions.
Fans of racing at Oaklawn Park are accustomed to seeing Steve Asmussen and Ricardo Santana Jr. atop the trainer and jockey standings most years, but that duo is bracing for stiff challenges this season, particularly in Santana’s case as the competition is fierce and the dynamics of the longer race meet at Oaklawn that starts in December may favor some others. As Asmussen goes, probably so will go Santana since he rides first call for Asmussen at Oaklawn. The same will be true for Brad Cox and Florent Geroux, who form a formidable trainer-jockey combo of their own.
Steve Asmussen is coming off his 12th career training title at the 2021-’22 Oaklawn meet and again is favored to lead the way in the trainer ranks this season. Asmussen set a new high-water mark, even by his own lofty standards last season, by winning 65 races. Two seasons ago with fewer race dates, he set the Oaklawn all-time single-season mark for purse earnings with just over $6 million. Asmussen now has 825 career victories at Oaklawn.
Asmussen’s top competition for the training title is expected to come from Brad Cox and Robertino Diodoro. Handicappers should take note that Asmussen started slow last year at Oaklawn’s first extended five-month season. He began the December portion of the meet with five wins from his first 37 starters. Cox has committed his substantial resources to being based at Oaklawn in the winter. Unlike Asmussen, Cox got off to a blazing hot start last year with nine winners from his first 23 starters (39%) and also had a fast start two seasons ago when he won with five of his first 13 starters (38%). Cox went on to post a 31-for-131 (24%) record in 2021-’22. His record was similarly strong in 2021 when he had 29 wins from 107 starters (27%).
As for Diodoro, avid handicappers will remember that he snatched the Oaklawn training title away from Asmussen at the 2020 meet when he edged the Hall of Famer with 52 wins to Asmussen’s 48. Diodoro won with five of his first 31 starters for a 16% start to last year’s met. He went on to finish second in the standings with 42 winners from 224 starters (19%). He also finished second best in the 2021 meet standings with 44 wins from 163 starters (27%).
Three other trainers to watch who got off to hot starts at the 2021-’22 meet are John Alexander Ortiz (four wins from first 18 starters), and Chris Hartman (four for first 14). Ortiz went on to finish in a tie for fourth in the season standings last year along with Karl Broberg at 27 wins. Hartman finished right behind them with 23 wins (21%). Some other trainers who enjoy annual success at Oaklawn include Cipriano Contreras, Ingrid Mason, Norman McKnight, Larry Jones, Jerry Hollendorfer, and D. Wayne Lukas.
Ricardo Santana Jr. is 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. Santana won 58 races (18%) at the 2021-’22 meet but was not leading rider. He ended up third in the standings behind first-time Oaklawn riding champion David Cabrera, as well as Francisco Arrieta who was second. Cabrera won last year’s title with 62 wins from 371 mounts (17%) to edge Arrieta who rode 61 winners from 379 mounts for 16%. These were not fluke performances. Cabrera enjoyed a strong meet in 2021 to finish as second-leading rider that year with 62 wins from 377 mounts (16%). Arrieta 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%), good for third in the standings. For the most part, Cabrera’s and Arrieta’s winners generally went off at better odds and paid more than the winners ridden by Geroux and Santana.
Santana lost the Oaklawn riding title in 2019 when David Cohen snatched the riding title away with 75 wins. Cohen remains a major factor at Oaklawn but his numbers have been declining recently. He won 28 races at Oaklawn at the 2021-’22 meet after winning 43 races in 2020 and 30 races in 2021. Notably his win percentage was lowest of all the top riders last year at just 11%.
Florent Geroux again has a great chance to join the group of leading riders at the meet. Geroux finished with 30 wins in each of the last two seasons at Oaklawn. He was fifth in the standings last year despite riding much fewer mounts than the other top jockeys. Geroux had only 172 mounts last year (17% win percentage) and was not a regular rider and won an impressive 27% of his 111 mounts in the 2021 season. The other wild card in the jock’s room is Joel Rosario, who wins at a very high percentage when he makes assorted appearances at Oaklawn.
Oaklawn post positions
To get a handicapping leg up at the meet, let’s start by looking at some post-position biases. There has been a noticeable outside flow to many of the Oaklawn races the past three seasons, particularly in sprints and at 1 1/16 miles. In those races, outside paths were preferable on many days the last few years. It wasn’t uncommon to see exactas like 12-11 or 8-9. Outside trips are capable of thriving at the meet. It’s more difficult at a mile, however, due to the short stretch with the alternate finish line.
The Oaklawn routes have played differently at the distances of 1 1/16 miles and at one mile (alternate finish line). In 1 1/16-mile routes, horses from inside, middle, and outside draws have had similar win percentages. We also saw this in six-furlong sprints. This is key, because outside horses in Oaklawn two-turn races tend not to get bet as much. This means there are plenty of outside-drawn bargain overlays to be found in 1 1/16-mile races.
The same is not true at one mile, however, where horses breaking from posts 1-6 have dominated at Oaklawn since 2020. There has been a sharp drop-off in effectiveness starting at post-position 7. At one mile, just 16% of the winners came from posts 7 and out, meaning 84% of the one-mile races are won from horses breaking from posts 1-6.
In the post position stats for six furlongs, horses from all parts of the starting gate all the way out to post 12 have won for similar percentages, indicating the track plays fairly in Oaklawn sprints. Despite the perception that the inside in better, the stats tell the real story, showing no real bias between inside, middle, and outside draws at six furlongs. Horses from inside posts 1-4 won at an average of 12% each. Middle posts 5-8 won at an average of 10% apiece. Horses from outside posts 9-12 won at an average of 10% each.
Best Oaklawn running styles
Now let’s switch to running style preferences at Oaklawn. The Oaklawn winning profile from years of stats indicates that early speed horses and pace-pressers within two lengths of the early lead have the preferred running style at each of Oaklawn’s three most commonly run distances, six furlongs, one mile, and 1 1/16 miles. The Oaklawn tried-and-true prevailing running style bias tends toward horses with early speed, or at least tactical speed, who can stay within two lengths of the early lead. This is very likely due to the Oaklawn track layout and relatively short stretch-run compared with other tracks, plus the even shorter stretch at one mile.
According to stats dating back to the 2018 Oaklawn meet, six furlongs is a good distance for front-runners, who enjoy roughly a 30% winning percentage (the lesser-run 5 ½-furlong distance is even more speed-favoring with 38% wire-to-wire). In routes, about 23% of all one-mile races were won wire-to-wire. About 28% of the 1 1/16-mile races were won wire-to-wire.
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 into your handicapping, and you will have a big advantage over many of your fellow horseplayers. Best of luck and enjoy the meet at Oaklawn.