Big Returns did just that in Sunday’s featured eighth race at Oaklawn, returning a whopping $125.20 to win after a 2 ½-length score in the first-level allowance/optional claiming sprint for 3-year-olds under Ramon Vazquez.
Previously based in Southern California with trainer Doug O’Neill and owner William R. Peeples, Big Returns represented the highest-priced winner at Oaklawn since Super Steed ($126.60) captured the $500,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) for 3-year-olds Feb. 18, 2019.
Asked if he could remember having a $125 winner, O’Neill, a two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, said, “I’m sure I have, but it’s been a while.”
“I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t bet a dime on him,” O’Neill said of his 2,479th career winner. “We had two in there. The horse that had just won, Liam’s Pride, looked like he was, obviously, in better form. I think Big Returns, he was training well and had a great, cozy outside post. That all seemed to work in his favor.”
Liam’s Pride, the 6-1 third choice in the 10-horse field, was exiting a March 7 maiden special weights victory (the first Oaklawn winner sired by Liam’s Map). Big Returns was coming off sixth-place finish in the $84,000 Baffle Stakes, a 5 ½-furlong turf sprint, Feb. 7 at Santa Anita. Big Returns had three published workouts at Oaklawn in advance of his local debut, including a 5-furlong move out of the gate in 1:00.40 March 10.
“Man, he ran huge,” O’Neill said. “I’ve just got to give a big thanks to Mr. Bill Peeples. He’s the one who was kind enough when I mentioned about sending him to Oaklawn. He said, ‘Let’s do it.’ We’re having some trouble getting dirt sprints to fill at Santa Anita, so I’m glad we did. He’s a nice, nice colt.”
A California-bred son of Mr. Big, Big Returns won for the third time in five lifetime starts to raise his earnings to $131,200. Big Returns, through disqualification for stretch interference, was placed first in the $100,000 Graduation Stakes for state-breds Aug. 2 at Del Mar.
Big Returns was running for an $80,000 claiming price Sunday, so O’Neill said he believes the colt could come back in the same condition. Big Returns will also be considered for the $100,000 Bachelor Stakes April 25, O’Neill said, a 6-furlong race the trainer finished second in last year with Landeskog.
O’Neill also won Sunday’s first race with She’s a Dime ($8). With approximately 10 horses on the grounds, O’Neill enters Thursday with a robust 26-percent strike rate (6 for 23) at the meet.
“It’s been awesome,” O’Neill said. “My assistant, Danny Robles, has done a wonderful job of keeping everything under control there. Just very blessed to have this opportunity and just proud of Oaklawn to stay running through this, hopefully, short-lived virus thing we’ve got going on.”
O’Neill is among seven Southern California-based trainers with strings this year at Oaklawn. O’Neill tops the list in victories through Sunday, followed by Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer (five), John Sadler (five), Phil D’Amato (five), Peter Miller (three), Peter Eurton (two) and Richard Baltas (one). An eighth Southern California-based trainer, Andrew Lerner, recorded a victory with his first career local starter this year.
Lexi on the Move
Unbeaten Lexi On the Move (2 for 2) will make her stakes debut in the $100,000 Purple Martin for 3-year-old filly sprinters April 4, trainer Robertino Diodoro said. Lexi On the Move, who races for Texan Larry Hirsch (Highlander Training Center), won her Feb. 15 career debut before clearing her first allowance condition March 8.
“From Day 1, we thought she could run, as long as we could get her mentally right,” Diodoro said. “That was her problem at the farm, at the training center, at Highlander. She’s really come around. The thing that I’m excited about is she’s very immature. We haven’t gotten to the bottom of her. I think there’s a lot of room to improve. That’s going to come with maturity. We’re pretty excited about her.”
Hirsch purchased Lexi On the Move, a daughter of Fast Anna, for $160,000 at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales June 2-Year-Olds and Horses of Racing Age Sale.
Also pointing for the Purple Martin are Ring Leader for trainer Mac Robertson and Frank’s Rockette for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. Ring Leader won Oaklawn’s $125,000 Dixie Belle Stakes Feb. 15. Frank’s Rockette has never finished worse than second in five career starts for breeder/owner Frank Fletcher of North Little Rock, Ark. Frank’s Rockette, in her 3-year-old debut, was a seven-length winner of the $75,000 Any Limit Stakes Feb. 22 at Gulfstream Park.
Nominations to the Purple Martin close Saturday.
Steve Asmussen ($3,048,130) became the first trainer at the meet to reach $3 million in purse earnings Saturday, the 34th day of the scheduled 57-day season. Asmussen, inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2016, set a single-season Oaklawn record for purse earnings ($5,644,609) last year. He reached $3 million last year on Day 38 of the 57-day meeting. Asmussen enters Thursday with 31 victories at the meet, 10 less than leader Robertino Diodoro. Asmussen has 678 career Oaklawn victories and is seeking his record-tying 11th local training title (all since 2007). … Hall of Fame jockey Calvin Borel recorded his 968th career Oaklawn victory aboard Flatoutandfoxy ($10) in Sunday’s sixth race, an Arkansas-bred allowance for fillies and mares. Borel rode the winner for his older brother, trainer Cecil Borel, and owner Carson McCord, 20, of Hot Springs. Calvin Borel was Oaklawn’s leading rider in 1995 and 2001. … Post positions were to be drawn Wednesday for Saturday’s $100,000 NodoubleBreeders’ Stakes. The 6-furlong race is for Arkansas-bred sprinters.