Two high-profile horsemen praised Oaklawn for its decision to continue live racing as venues across the country close because of COVID-19.
Keeneland has canceled its spring race meeting (April 2-24), Turf Paradise in Phoenix has canceled the remainder of its race meeting – it was scheduled to run through May 3 – and Sunland Park near El Paso has suspended racing, a move that eliminated its signature event, Sunday’s $700,000 Sunland Derby (G3) for 3-year-olds from the calendar.
“What’s nice is it shows what Mr. Cella and the Cella family think of horse racing because they could be doing what a lot of these other places are doing,” trainer Robertino Diodoro said Tuesday morning. “For them to do what they’re doing, we’re all pretty blessed to have a place to train and run. You can definitely tell that they’re in for racing. You know what I mean? There’s a lot of places that aren’t, and it’s showing right now.”
Diodoro’s vast operation includes horses at Turf Paradise (Phoenix), Sam Houston Race Park in Houston, Will Rogers Downs near Tulsa and, of course, Oaklawn, where he has a meet-best 38 victories through 31 days of the scheduled 57-day season.
Diodoro said he’s already making adjustments, noting Sir Rick was en route to Oaklawn Tuesday morning after being entered in the Sunland Derby. Sir Rick won the $100,000 Mine That Bird Stakes Feb. 23 at Sunland Park in his last start and recorded a 5-furlong breeze there last Sunday. Sir Rick is now a candidate for the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) scheduled to be run April 11 at Oaklawn, according to Diodoro.
Diodoro said he also has roughly a half-dozen horses coming from Turf Paradise, adding “they probably should have been here at the beginning of the meet” because he believes “they’re good enough” to compete at Oaklawn. Diodoro said he has 32 horses at Turf Paradise.
“I haven’t slept for two nights, not that I can do anything about it,” said Diodoro, who has approximately 40 horses at Oaklawn. “I’m just worried. I feel sorry for so many people, too. My girlfriend was showing me stuff of some of those guys in Phoenix selling saddles and bridles. They’re broke. It hurts.”
Four-time Oaklawn leading owner Danny Caldwell echoed Diodoro’s comments. Caldwell, tied for second in the standings with seven victories through Sunday, called Oaklawn’s decision to continue racing “tremendous” for horsemen.
“I can’t thank the Cella family enough for keeping the races going, even though they had to close the casino,” Caldwell said Tuesday afternoon. “I know that’s tough on them. It means a lot to us horsemen because without being able to race, it’s hard for guys like me to stay in the business. We really appreciate it. I know I do, and I know most all horsemen appreciate them for what they’re doing for us.”
Oaklawn is scheduled to run through May 2.
The Big One
Grade 1 winner The Big Beast was represented by his first Oaklawn winner when The Big Bluff, a 3-year-old colt, broke his maiden in last Friday’s ninth race for trainer Steve Hobby of Hot Springs and owners Alex and JoAnn Lieblong of Conway, Ark.
The Big Beast, a physically imposing son of Yes It’s True, finished a troubled second in his March 29, 2014 career debut at Oaklawn for Hobby and the Lieblongs before winning the $500,000 King’s Bishop Stakes (G1) for 3-year-old sprinters that summer at Saratoga when under the care of trainer Tony Dutrow. The Big Beast was an allowance winner at Oaklawn in his 4-year-old debut.
The Lieblongs stand The Big Beast at Ocala Stud in Florida, where he was the state’s second-leading first-crop sire in 2019. They purchased The Big Bluff, who was making his third career start, for $100,000 last March at The Gulfstream Sale, Fasig-Tipton’s select sale of 2-year-olds in training.
“It’s exciting,” Hobby said of having The Big Beast’s first Oaklawn winner. “He’s doing great at stud.”
Hobby said The Big Bluff is the only offspring of The Big Beast that he now has, but added Alex Lieblong plans to send more. Roughly 24 hours after The Big Bluff’s victory, The Big Beast had his second Oaklawn winner when Classy Beast, a homebred for the Lieblongs, broke her maiden in Saturday’s 11th race for trainer David Fawkes. Classy Beast is out of stakes-placed I’mclassyandsassy, who finished second in a 2013 allowance race at Oaklawn for Hobby and the Lieblongs.
“I have not seen any of them that physically look like The Big Beast,” Hobby said. “He is huge. You ought to see him now. You can’t imagine how big he is now. Massive animal.”
The Lieblongs keep their broodmare band, approximately 13, at Ocala Stud and are heavily supporting The Big Beast. The Lieblongs, for example, plan to breed their multiple Oaklawn stakes winner, Bye Bye J, to The Big Beast upon retirement. Alex Lieblong said Bye Bye J, a 4-year-old Arkansas-bred daughter of Uncaptured, was privately purchased early last year with the intent to breed to The Big Beast. Bye Bye J won Oaklawn’s $100,000 Rainbow Miss Stakes in 2019 and the $125,000 Downthedustyroad Breeders’ Stakes Feb. 22. Both races were restricted to Arkansas-bred females.
The Big Bluff was purchased at the same sale as Nadal, who won last Saturday’s $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) for 3-year-olds to remain unbeaten in three lifetime starts. Nadal was a $700,000 purchase. Alex Lieblong is chairman of the Arkansas Racing Commission.
Unbeaten Nadal (3 for 3) was flown back to his Southern California base late Tuesday afternoon after winning last Saturday’s $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) for 3-year-olds for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. … Alex and JoAnn Lieblong, fourth in the owner standings this season, have won the nightcap the last three racing days – all with maidens – and all with different trainers. The Lieblongs won last Friday’s ninth race with The Big Bluff (trainer Steve Hobby of Hot Springs), Saturday’s 11th race with homebred Classy Beast (David Fawkes) and Sunday’s ninth race with Strong Flag (Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen). Strong Flag, a 3-year-old filly, is by Grade 1 winner Strong Mandate and from the family (third dam) of unbeaten Hall of Famer Personal Ensign. Strong Flag was purchased as a yearling for $435,000 from Fasig-Tipton’s Kentucky July Sale. … Joe Talamo has ridden seven winners the past two racing days and has 29 overall to rank second in the standings entering Thursday. Six-time local riding champion Ricardo Santana enters Thursday with a meet-best 35 victories. … Luis Quinonez has 599 career Oaklawn victories, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. Quinonez, Oaklawn’s leading rider in 2007, is named on three horses Friday.