Total pari-mutuel handle on Saturday's 10-race Rebel Day card at Oaklawn was a record for March and a non-Arkansas Derby Day, eclipsing marks set from last year's corresponding program, despite one fewer race.
According to figures released Saturday night by the track, total handle was $10,771,984.46, with $2,089,754.20 wagered on track and a March record $8,682,230.26 bet off track. The program was highlighted by three consecutive stakes races to end the day – $300,000 Essex Handicap for older horses, $350,000 Azeri (G2) for older fillies and mares and the $900,000 Rebel (G2), one of the country's most important Kentucky Derby preps.
On last year's 11-race Rebel Day card, Oaklawn set non-Arkansas Derby Day and March records for total handle ($10,752,313.15) and off-track handle ($8,544,041.15). In addition to the Rebel, that program included the Azeri and Essex Handicap, the latter swapping places on the calendar with the Razorback Handicap after previously being run in February.
Saturday's on-track handle was a season high and estimated attendance of 37,500 was the largest for Rebel Day since 2005. Fans were treated to sunny skies, 80-degree temperatures and the infield open for the first time this season.
“Absolutely delighted,” Oaklawn President Louis Cella said Tuesday afternoon. “We finally got a break in the weather. We had some of the best horses, 3-year-olds around, trying to test themselves and see if they're worthy to go forward. We could not have been happier, and 37,000-plus people agreed with me.”
Rebel Day has grown into Oaklawn's second-biggest business day during the live season, with attendance, off-track handle and total handle – money wagered on Oaklawn's races – increasing each year since eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah won the Rebel in 2015. Straight wagering on Saturday's Rebel ($1,169,195) surpassed $1 million for the second consecutive year.
“It's always amazing, the fans and our demographic,” Cella said. “From horsemen to dignitaries to folks that fly in from out of town to look at their horses, owners to see their horses run, they are amazed, and we are amazed at the enthusiasm and excitement our fans bring and the young demographic. Everyone in the state of Arkansas loves horse racing and they love coming out to see a competitive race. Hopefully, we can build on that. Our Rebel Day has grown into the second-biggest day and it's fighting to be first, just right behind our Derby. It is a huge day.”
Oaklawn's live season was plagued by frigid temperatures in January and record-breaking rainfall in February. The meeting had been scheduled for 57 days (Jan. 12-April 14), but racing was canceled Jan. 18 and Jan. 19 following a winter storm.
According to the National Weather Service in Little Rock, Ark., Hot Springs Memorial Field Airport received 13.76 inches of rain in February – the most on record for the month – breaking the previous mark of 10.11 in 1989.
Oaklawn ran 117 consecutive races without a fast track, a streak stretching Feb. 10 until the seventh race March 2.
“It really was a special day,” Cella said, referring to Saturday. “It's all about the weather. It's like the St. Louis Cardinals on Opening Day. They're going to have 50,000 people, unless it rains.”
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