HOT SPRINGS, Ark — Several horse fatalities at a track in southern California is having an impact at racetracks across the country, including Oaklawn in Hot Springs. Oaklawn officials are welcoming west coast horses with open arms while their home track is closed.
“Mother Nature has not been kind to them out there this year,” said Patrick Pope, Oaklawn’s racing secretary. He's one of the officials working to offer horsemen a safe alternative without looking like they are taking advantage of the situation.
“Where can they go that they know it's a very good place but also a good fair shake in the racing here?" He said. "They've come here before and we are happy to have them.”
The crisis stems from the 21 horses who have died from on-track injuries at Santa Anita Race Track north of Los Angeles since its season started Dec. 26.
Problems with the racing surface caused by the weather are considered a leading factor and racing is on hold indefinitely. Light training resumed Friday over a dirt oval that isn’t used for races.
“It's a bad deal for everyone. The owners, the help, the trainers. It puts everyone in a bad position,” said Robertino Diodoro, the second-leading trainer at Oaklawn this season who has raced his string of Thoroughbreds in Southern California for parts of the last 10 years.
He said Oaklawn does a few specific things differently that may be helping the Arkansas track avoid the plight of Santa Anita.
“They do well here is keeping the track sealed at night,” he said of the practice of packing the top of the dirt track so water runs off of it. “You just never know with the weather. Just because there's no rain the forecast sometimes the clouds roll in.”
Pope says two plane-loads of horses arrive next week. The Rebel Stakes could have as many as 20 horses and would be run in two divisions with each race being worth $750,000 and offering Kentucky Derby qualifying points.
That would be a huge boost to the local bottom line, but that's secondary right now.
“The safety of the jockey and horse first,” Pope said. “We go along those lines and make sure everybody not only has a great time here but it's all about the sport. It's all about the safety of the rider and the horse in Arkansas.”