Trainer Robertino Diodoro has increased his win total every year at Oaklawn since he began wintering in Hot Springs in 2015 and another bump for the 2020 meet that begins Jan. 24 would likely put the trainer in select company.
The late Cole Norman, Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen and David Vance are the only trainers in Oaklawn history to reach 50 victories in a single season. Diodoro finished with 48 victories in 2019 – the bulk coming for record-setting owner M and M Racing (Mike and Mickala Sisk) – to finish second to Asmussen for the third consecutive year.
“I think we've got a good mix this year,” Diodoro said during training hours in early December. “The barn has changed drastically in the last 30 days or so, just with lots of claims. And, we've lost a lot, too. Then we've been buying privately. Have a few young horses that haven't started yet that we'll have ready here for the first couple of weeks. I think we do have a different stable, from the aspect that we've got some first-time starters and maidens, which we've always lacked.”
One of those recent claims, Pioneer Spirit, was on behalf of Arkansas-based Lucky Dog Stables, Heads Up Racing and a new client, Lawrence Roman. Diodoro took Pioneer Spirit out of a Nov. 2 victory at Churchill Downs for $150,000, the highest-priced claim at Churchill Downs since at least 2002, according to the track's media relations department.
Pioneer Spirit, then under the care of trainer Brad Cox, was an allowance winner at the 2019 Oaklawn meeting before finishing third in the $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) and the inaugural $250,000 Oaklawn Mile. The 6-year-old son of Malibu Moon is scheduled to make his first start for his new connections in the $75,000 Tenacious Stakes Saturday at Fair Grounds. Diodoro said he's using the 1-mile 70-yard race (Pioneer Spirit is the 3-1 program favorite) as a prep for the $100,000 Fifth Season Stakes for older horses Jan. 25, the first of five major local events leading up to the $1 million Oaklawn Handicap (G2) April 18.
Diodoro said one young horse he's excited about is Feathered Indian, an unraced 2-year-old colt by super sire Into Mischief. Purchased for $325,000 at the OBS June sale of 2-year-olds and horses of racing age, Feathered Indian worked a quarter-mile in :21.20 during the under-tack preview.
“He's a big horse that needs to grow into himself,” Diodoro said. “He's slowly doing that. We'll see what happens.”
Feathered Indian worked a half-mile in :49.60 Sunday morning at Oaklawn and is scheduled to debut opening weekend, Diodoro said.
Diodoro said his biggest client remains M and M Racing, which shattered Oaklawn single-season owner's records in 2019 with 61 victories and $1,775,651 in purse earnings. Diodoro won 29 races for Mike Sisk and his wife, Mickala.
Diodoro said he now has about a half-dozen horses for Roman, a successful New York owner.
“He's never run a horse at Oaklawn,” Diodoro said. “He's pretty excited. He told me that it's one of the few tracks that he's never been to and never run at.”
Annually among the country's winningest trainers, Diodoro won nine races in 2015 at Oaklawn, 22 in 2016, 31 in 2017 and 32 in 2018.
Diodoro also races extensively in Arizona, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota and New York, but success in Arkansas has made Hot Springs a second home for the Canadian-born trainer.
“I sold my house in Minnesota and bought one here,” said Diodoro, who has five career stakes victories at Oaklawn. “It's my favorite place. I love it here. Good racing, good atmosphere, good people.”
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