Whitmore Stakes connects Oaklawn’s past with the present
HOT SPRINGS – Now in its third century, Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort – as the track on Central Avenue in Hot Springs is now called – has enough stories to entertain a historian.
The track today features two Grade III races for older horses which should motivate any aspiring Carl Sandburg. One involves a second local track that burned down and a horse that raced here for five seasons and never burned out.
The $500,000 Essex Handicap for Older Men recognizes track near Lake Catherine that burst into flames after a day of operation.
This happened during a period of American racing where anything was possible, which was being influenced at Hot Springs by what the Track Media Guide calls the “political climate”.
In more stable times, even as America crawled out of the Great Depression, Oaklawn stayed here in 1934. The Oaklawn Jockey Club was founded in 1904 by brothers Louis and Charles Cella of St. Louis and two other men.
Oaklawn has raced every year since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first of four terms as U.S. President, only stopped by a government executive order suspending racing nationwide in 1945 because of World War II and the 2020 Covid pandemic, which limited spectator attendance were, but the product has not suffered.
Buoyed by off-track betting, Oaklawn netted a record $41.4 million on the rescheduled Arkansas Derby card in 1920, running the race in two divisions for the second time in its 84-year history. Another Louis Cella, whose father, Charles, was circuit president nearly 50 years after his own father’s death in 1968, oversaw a circuit expansion that led to expanded casino gaming, a hotel and events center, and sports betting. But not a grass course, although with an extended season, the 2-year-old racer returned to Oaklawn in 2021.
Few Hot Springs native horses performed better and were more popular than Whitmore, whom owner trainer Ron Moquett transformed from a Kentucky Derby runner to a sprint champion.
The Old Boy, as some called him, scored his second Grade I win in the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Keeneland, the first coming at Saratoga in 2018.
When he could no longer run like a champion, Moquett retired him during the gelding’s 8-year season, winning seven appearances and more than $1 million in a career that could prove Hall of Fame at Oaklawn alone.
Oaklawn showed his appreciation by naming a barn and renaming the Hot Springs Stakes, which Pleasantly Perfect’s son won a record four times, after Whitmore. The second edition of the $200,000 Whitmore takes place today, marking a 10-race program that also honors several members of the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, NY at the track
The first post is 12:35 p.m., and honorees include local resident coach Steve Asmussen, who broke his North American record 10,000 current season in Oaklawn last month. Other Hall of Famers with horses at the meet include Jerry Hollendorfer, Bill Mott, and Nick Zito. Hall of Famer Calvin Borel, with three Kentucky Derby winners, still races in Oaklawn.
If all goes well, Whitmore will be paraded on the track before the race in his honor.
Whitmore, who lives near his trainer in the back of Oaklawn and is cared for by Moquett and his wife Laura, is a happy camper, his people report.
Bob’s Edge, who was trained by Larry Jones and whose late walk mimicked Whitmore’s, won the gelding’s first campaign of honor last year.
The 10-horse field today includes uncoupled competitors trained by Asmussen (Cogburn, Morello) and Chris Hartman (Tejano Twist, Edge to Edge). Race 8 on the agenda, the Whitmore starts at 16:22