As the Prep Series on the Road to the Kentucky Derby winds down and the Championship Series gets started, there will be nine race tracks hosting the remaining 16 races in the United States. The venues represent virtually every region of the country, giving horses a chance to qualify for the first jewel of the Triple Crown without having to venture too far from home.
Holding horse racing events outdoors in the winter can have its risks with the weather. Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, was scheduled to host the $750,000 Southwest on February 15. The area experienced freezing rain and cold temperatures earlier this week with more winter weather on the way, so the weekend card was canceled.
The Southwest, with qualifying leader Essential Quality in the field, was postponed until February 20 and, as a result, picked up another top contender. Keepmeinmind was scheduled to run in the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, but the decision was made to run the second-placed horse at Oaklawn instead. Keepmeinmind is currently on 18 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, with Essential Quality having 30.
The weather-related events are reminiscent of the first weekend of racing at Oaklawn in February 1905. The track was scheduled to hold its first six-race card on February 13 of that year, but severe weather and sub-zero temperatures forced postponement until February 15. After 116 years, it appears things haven't changed much in central Arkansas.
Stakes become higher from here
The Southwest will be the final race of the Prep Series, with points awarded on a 10-4-2-1 scale. The 2020 winner was Silver Prospector, who failed to finish better than sixth in his next two Derby prep starts and wasn't able to qualify to run at Churchill Downs.
Beginning with the Risen Star, six of the next seven races will up the ante with a points spread of 50-20-10-5. Oaklawn's Rebel Stakes on March 13 will be the last race at that award level. The purse for last year's edition was $1million, with a similar sum expected for 2021.
Last year's winner, Nadal, also went on to win the Arkansas Derby and was a favorite in the Kentucky Derby after leading in points with 150. Unfortunately, after going undefeated in four starts, the three-year-old suffered a condylar fracture and was retired after successful surgery.
The aforementioned $1million Arkansas Derby is Oaklawn's Grade 1 Derby prep race and will take place on April 10, the last 100-40-20-10 point opportunity for Triple Crown hopefuls. The race is the premier stakes competition at Oaklawn and was first run in 1936 with a purse of $5,000.
Perhaps the most famous winner of the race is American Pharoah, who went on to win the Triple Crown in 2015. Other winners include Smarty Jones in 2004 on his way to victories in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, and Curlin, the 2007 Preakness champion and two-time Eclipse Award winner for American Horse of the Year. Curlin has since been inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.