Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas begins its 57-day race meet on Friday at 12:30 p.m. with a nine-race card featuring the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes, a Kentucky Derby stepping stone. Track officials expect full fields and competitive racing, a belief confirmed by the first two days of entries. New this year on the wagering menu are two pick five wagers daily with the first beginning in the opener and the second always on the final five races.
Horse players, regardless of their circuit of choice, will find familiar trainer names on the overnight as conditioners converge at Oaklawn to chase the lucrative purses. The roll call includes Steve Asmussen, Tom Amoss, Karl Broberg, Brad Cox, Robertino Diodoro, James Divito, Jinks Fires, Jerry Hollendorfer, D Wayne Lukas, Mike Maker, Peter Miller, Mac Robertson, Don Von Hemel and Nick Zito to name a few.
One jockey gaining popularity with those trainers and with racing fans is Kelsi Harr. No longer an apprentice, she lost her bug at Canterbury last summer, Harr looks for the season, and race riding for her, to begin. In 2020 she saw her mounts more than double over the previous 365 days and her wins triple as Harr earned her connections more than $1 million in purses. Her business was picking up at the end of the 2020 Oaklawn meet and that momentum carried forward to Canterbury where she finished the meet as the seventh leading rider.
“I wanted to progress on ,” Harr said. She did. So with just one mount each of the first two days this week, Harr was “a little disappointed. It always tough. It’s Oaklawn.” The 28-year-old looked down the list of saw some very accomplished professionals including Ramon Vazquez, David Cohen, Ricardo Santana Jr., Joe Talamo, Florent Geroux, Calvin Borel, Jareth Loveberry and Francisco Arrieta.
Harr trusts her agent “Big Steve” Krajcir, an Oaklawn fuxture, and knows business will pick up, just as it did last year. With a meet like Oaklawn often times a rider’s mounts are entered but the races don’t go. Patience is essential.
When Harr left Canterbury in September she returned home to Arkansas. She rode a few times at Remington and a day at Fair Grounds but took more time off from daily galloping than usual, leaving her ready to get back into the action. She’s been getting on horses at Oaklawn since mid November, many for longtime friend and trainer Al Cates who has been there for her since her career began.
“He helped me along tremendously,” Harr said of Cates for whom she has galloped, and was for a short time an assistant trainer, for a decade. “I credit him with any success I have had.”
Harr will get on at least seven horses every morning, some for fiancée and trainer Robert Cline who has 17 stalls at the track as well as babies at a nearby farm.
One of those horses is Bandit Point, Harr’s first mount as a professional jockey in 2018. That first mount saw Harr and Bandit Point end up in the winners’ circle at Canterbury Park on a Sunday afternoon in front of a large Father’s Day crowd.
Now six, the Arkansas-bred Bandit Point is still in training. He has not raced since May 1 of last
year. He trained at Canterbury but Cline did not enter him, preferring to give him time off. He has five workouts since Dec. 16. “We hope he hasn’t forgotten how to run,” Harr said with a laugh. She expects Bandit Point, a winner of $294,910 in his 30-race career, to be entered as soon as a race fits him.
Galloping and working horses is fine, but race riding it what she looks forward to most. Race riding is what will allow her to continue the upward trajectory.
Goals for Harr? “My goal is to get better,” she said. “Not get complacent. I don’t want this to be the best I ever am.” So she works at the craft. Watches riders; gains knowledge and most importantly confidence. She wants to finish stronger. She is hesitant to give advice to other younger riders when asked, not because she views them as competition, but because she feels she too needs to improve and it might be better to ask and watch others with more accomplishments. That young riders do ask Harr for advice may suggest she is underestimating her own accomplishments. She has made an impact at Oaklawn, something many a new rider is hoping can happen for them as well.
The Oaklawn meet runs through May 1 with racing Friday through Sunday in January and Thursday through Sunday February through the end of the season.
Smarty Jones draws field of seven
Friday’s Smarty Jones attracted a field of seven including Mac Robertson trainee Martini Blu owned by Novogratz Racing Stables. Martini Blu debuted and won a maiden special weight route at Hawthorne on Dec. 27. Arrieta has the mount. Likely favorites are Cowan, second in the BC Juvenile Turf Sprint and subsequently second in the Springboard Mile at Remington. Caddo River trained by Brad Cox broke his maiden at a mile at Churchill. The Smarty Jones, which offers 10-4-2-1 Kentucky Derby points, is race eight on the card.