Asmussen Breaks Oaklawn Earnings Record

Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen broke his single-season Oaklawn record for purse earnings when Sianara and Miner’s Queen ran 1-2, respectively, in Wednesday’s seventh race, a maiden special weights sprint for fillies and mares, 3 and up, valued at $93,000.

Asmussen’s runners collected $74,400 for the finish, pushing his total past the record $5,644,609 set in 2019 when he won 64 races, second-highest single-season total in Oaklawn history. Wednesday was the 48th day of the weather-shortened 51-day meeting that ends Saturday. Asmussen finished Wednesday with $5,686,643 in purse earnings at the meet.

Asmussen has all but secured his record-tying 11th Oaklawn training title with 57 victories though Wednesday. Defending champion Robertino Diodoro was second with 41. Hall of Famer Henry Forrest won 11 titles between 1947 and 1963.

The late Cole Norman, Asmussen, Diodoro and David Vance are the only trainers in Oaklawn history to reach 50 victories in a single season. Norman won a record 71 races in 2003.

Sianara represented Asmussen’s 752nd career Oaklawn winner (No. 2 all time). Asmussen has a record 96 career Oaklawn stakes victories. He has three horses entered in Saturday’s $300,000 Oaklawn Stakes for 3-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles, including 5-2 program favorite Scarred.

Asmussen will be watching his Oaklawn starters from Churchill Downs where he will saddle Fantasy Stakes winner Pauline’s Pearl in the Kentucky Oaks on Friday and Arkansas Derby winner Super Stock in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

Oh, Sherry

Trainer Sherry Rhea recorded her first career victory in Sunday’s seventh race at Oaklawn when My Little Tipsy ($15) broke his maiden under apprentice jockey Albert Lopez.

Rhea, who launched her career in 2020, had been 0 for 61 and was winless in 48 starts at this year’s Oaklawn meeting, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization.

“There’s no feeling like it in the world,” Rhea, 57, said Wednesday afternoon outside her Oaklawn barn. “I was so excited. They say there’s a tradition here, you get a duck on the last day if you don’t win a race. I’m like, ‘I think they’ve got me lined up for a duck this year,’ so I’m sure glad it happened.”

Rhea’s milestone victory was a family affair since My Little Tipsy, a 3-year-old gelding, is a homebred for her father, retired trainer Stanley Roberts of Forrest City, Ark. Roberts was Oaklawn’s second-leading trainer in 2002 and topped the owner’s standings three consecutive years in Hot Springs (2002, 2003 and 2004) with his former business partner Rick Turman (Highway 1 Racing Stable).

Roberts, 79, now assists his daughter and saddled My Little Tipsy Sunday. Rhea saddled the gelding’s older full-brother, My Little Tip, who, at 48-1, finished third in the same race for $20,000 Arkansas-bred maiden claimers. Roberts also bred My Little Tip, but the 4-year-old gelding is owned by his daughter.

A Forrest City native, Rhea has been around horses her entire life. She taught school for 34 years, including 28 in Forrest City, before retiring a couple of years ago to help her father. Rhea is a lifelong barrel racer and said she competed Tuesday in Bee Branch, Ark. Rhea also has a background in Quarter-Horses, adding she’s leaning heavily on her father in her transition to Thoroughbreds.

“I’m new to this, very, very new to this,” Rhea said. “I’ve got a background with horses, so I’ve got horse sense. I’m just learning about the track.”

Roberts trained Quarter-Horses before successfully switching to Thoroughbreds approximately 30 years ago, amassing 957 victories between 1990 and 2020, according to Equibase. Roberts had been scaling back his racing operation in recent years and started his last horse April 19, 2020, at Oaklawn. Roberts has 193 career victories, including five stakes, in Hot Springs.

“He was my assistant trainer, but you know what that means,” Rhea said. “He is still very much involved. He does the entering. He still calls most all the shots. My dad will be turning 80 this summer and he’s won over 900 races, so whatever he says goes. I can give a little input and I help and I do a lot. But, basically, he’s still very much involved.”

Roberts owns a 97-acre farm in Forrest City, about 140 miles east of Hot Springs. Rhea lives on the breeding/training facility, which stood the now-deceased Mykindacandy (sire of My Little Tipsy and My Little Tip) and houses overflow that are not stabled at Oaklawn. After retiring from teaching, Rhea said it was the perfect time to help her father (haul horses, pick up broodmares, etc.) since he had been talking retirement for several years.

“I started this endeavor a couple of years ago just to spend time with my dad before he quit,” Rhea said. “I wanted to step in and spend time with him, day-to-day, not just show up every now and again. I wanted to spend time with him before he retired.”

Rhea said after the Oaklawn meeting ends Saturday, her horses will ship from her father’s Forrest City farm to run at tracks like Prairie Meadows, Fairmount Park and Louisiana Downs.

“That’s the rodeo in me,” Rhea said. “I don’t mind the driving.”

My Little Tipsy represented the first United States victory for Lopez, according to Equibase. Lopez, who rides with a 10-pound allowance, had three victories last year in Puerto Rico.

Cabrera Shines in Oaklawn Return

David Cabrera rode two winners Wednesday to keep his faint hopes alive for a first Oaklawn riding title. Cabrera won the third race aboard favored Shes Got It ($3.20) for trainer Wayne Catalano and the seventh race aboard Sianara ($7.20) for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen.

Perennial local riding champion Ricardo Santana Jr. completed the meeting with 68 victories. Wednesday’s double nudged Cabrera to 55 with three days remaining in the season. Cabrera, the busiest jockey on the grounds, was named on horses for the final 32 races of the meeting, meaning he’s still mathematically alive.

“Our goal was 40 (victories), $2 million in earnings and second place,” Joe Santos, Cabrera’s agent, said during training hours Sunday morning at Oaklawn. “Hopefully, we haven’t hit all three. But you can’t ask for more than what’s happened.”

Cabrera has a headlock on second in the standings – newcomer Francisco Arrieta was third with 45 victories entering Thursday – and ranked only behind Santana in purse earnings ($2,904,313). Santana finished with a single-season Oaklawn record $5,642,523.

“Started off slow, but we finished up pretty strong,” Cabrera said. “It’s gone pretty good.”

Even if Cabrera, 28, doesn’t complete the “Hail Mary,” it’s been a bounce-back season for the jockey at Oaklawn. Cabrera, in his Oaklawn debut, won 43 races in 2018 to finish second in the standings. But he rode only 12 winners in 2019, tumbled out of the top 10 and didn’t return as a regular last year, opting to ride at Sam Houston.

Santos credited Cabrera’s work ethic for his return to the top. Cabrera had a meet-high 345 mounts through Wednesday, Day 48 of the weather-shortened 51-day meeting, which was 40 more than the second-highest total. Santana, whose last day was Sunday, had 305 mounts at the meeting.

“He tries hard on every horse he rides,” Santos said, referring to Cabrera. “Even when it doesn’t look like they’re going to get there, that last sixteenth they find a way. Just try to ride as many live horses as you can. Even sometimes when they’re not live, just make sure it’s for the people helping you out. When you give them a shot, sometimes they run better than you expect.”

After the Oaklawn meeting ends Saturday, Cabrera will ride at Lone Star Park and Remington Park, where he has been leading rider the last three years.

Stakes Buffet

Eight Oaklawn stakes winners are entered in stakes races this weekend at Churchill Downs, including unbeaten champion Essential Quality (2021 Southwest) in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown, at 1 ¼ miles.

Other Oaklawn stakes winners entered are: Shedaresthedevil (2020 Honeybee and 2021 Azeri) in Friday’s $500,000 La Troienne (G1) for older fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles; Windmill (2021 Dixie Belle) and Abrogate (2021 Purple Martin) in Friday’s $300,000 Eight Belles (G2) for 3-year-old fillies at 7 furlongs; Pauline’s Pearl (2021 Fantasy) and Will’s Secret (2021 Martha Washington and 2021 Honeybee) in Friday’s $1.25 million Kentucky Oaks (G1) for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/8 miles; Whitmore (2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 Hot Springs and 2017, 2018 and 2020 Count Fleet) in Saturday’s $500,000 Churchill Downs (G1) for older horses at 7 furlongs; and Super Stock (2021 Arkansas Derby) in the Kentucky Derby.

Finish Lines

Jockey Luis Quinonez and trainer Ernie Witt II teamed for two victories on Wednesday’s card. They won the fifth race with first-time starter Nisi Prius ($12.40) and the eighth race with Kaboom Baby ($27.60). The double pushed Quinonez’s career Oaklawn total to 616 (No. 8 all time). Quinonez was Oaklawn’s leading rider in 2007. It was the first career Oaklawn double for Witt, a former radio sports talk show host from Ozark, Ark., and the son of prominent Arkansas breeder/owner Ernie Witt. Ernie Witt II primarily focuses on Arkansas-breds. … Decade, a 3-year-old daughter of champion California Chrome, was scheduled to make her 2021 debut in Thursday’s sixth race at Oaklawn, an entry-level allowance sprint, for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen and LNJ Foxwoods (Jaime Roth). California Chrome was represented by his first Oaklawn winner Feb. 5, when Jewel Azul broke her maiden for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas.