By Jennifer Hoyt for Oaklawn Park – In a move believed to be unprecedented in American racing history, Oaklawn will split the 84th running of the Arkansas Derby Saturday, May 2. Thanks to the cooperation of Churchill Downs, both divisions will carry the full 170 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby (G1).
The Arkansas Derby was originally scheduled to have a purse of $1,000,000. Under the provisions of the split, each division will have a purse of $500,000.
In making the announcement, Oaklawn President Louis Cella said, “Because of our national crisis, we and the entire world of sports are in uncharted waters requiring unprecedented actions. We’re trying to make the best of a very, very difficult situation. On the one hand, it is the worst of times to be racing without fans in our grandstand. On the other, we have a large number of exceptional three-year-olds wanting to run in our Arkansas Derby. We simply did not want to see anyone lose that opportunity.”
A total of 22 horses are expected to go postward between the two divisions, including winners of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), the Rebel Stakes (G2), the Tampa Bay Derby (G2), and the Louisiana Derby (G2).
Because of Covid-19, Oaklawn has been racing without fans since March 13, a crippling blow since Oaklawn is the largest tourism venue in Arkansas.
“We are not alone in our suffering,” said Cella. “All of America is hurting. By maintaining some semblance of a racing program, at least we’ve been able to help horse owners, their employees, trainers, and jockeys while providing sport for racing fans across the country to enjoy.”
Cella said he began talking to Churchill Downs a month ago about the possibility of a split while maintaining the points, and both quickly agreed this development would be in the best interest of racing.
Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery said, “We’re in the midst of an unprecedented year. We recognize that there are numerous 3-year-olds currently in training with limited racing opportunities, and our prominent partner Oaklawn Park is in a unique and important position to immediately fill a void for horsemen. An extension of the Road to the Kentucky Derby will continue to evolve in the weeks ahead. Our Churchill Downs team is united in our commitment to holding the very best Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5, and it will certainly be one of the most memorable of our lifetimes.”
In partnership with the Arkansas HBPA, Oaklawn has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep everyone working on the backstretch as safe as possible. Cella said the safety measures have been so successful that the track was recently contacted by another professional sports league seeking information on all of the safety measures that Oaklawn has implemented over the past several weeks. Protocols have included but not been limited to: temperature checking everyone that enters the stable area and grandstand area daily; limiting access to the paddock and winner’s circle; and separate jockey quarters for out-of-state riders.
“Our partnership with the horsemen this year during the Covid-19 pandemic has shown a remarkable level of unity and has made all of us very proud,” said Cella. He gave particular credit to HBPA President Bill Walmsley.
Although fans will not be allowed at Oaklawn for the Arkansas Derby, the entire closing day card will be broadcast on FoxSports1 and TVG. Partial card including stakes races will be shown on NBC Sports (TVG feed). Arkansas fans will be able to wager on OaklawnAnywhere.com or via the app. There will be 12 other races on the 14-race card, including the $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap. First post will be at 12 noon.