Barn Notes - 12/4/23
Compiled by Robert Yates
Oaklawn is scheduled to run 10 races Friday, which would equal an opening-day record for a track that conducted its first meeting in 1905.
Oaklawn has opened with nine-race cards every year since 1956, with the exception of 2003 when 10 races were run for the first time. That 10-race card attracted 114 entrants and 109 starters after scratches.
Friday’s card drew 109 entrants (including also eligibles) in an era when foal crops are declining and much lower than 20 years ago. Entries were taken and post positions drawn last Friday.
“Yesterday, you saw entries went very well,” Oaklawn racing secretary Pat Pope said Saturday morning. “Look at the type of races we’re making. I mean, three special weights and you’re splitting allowance races.”
At least 10 horses were entered in eight races, including a full field of 12 in the featured $150,000 Advent Stakes for 2-year-olds. Oaklawn raised the purse of maiden special weight races to $115,000 and allowance events to at least $140,000 – both record levels to open a season – in 2023-2024.
Cunningham’s New Title
Jade Cunningham has returned to Oaklawn for the fourth consecutive season, but now she’s the boss and seeking her first career training victory during the 2023-2024 meeting that begins Friday.
Cunningham, 27, hails from a racing family and struck out on her own last summer in Kentucky after spending the 2021 Oaklawn meeting working under her mentor, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, and running trainer Dallas Stewart’s Oaklawn division the past two seasons.
Cunningham started her first horse Sept. 3 and has had four other starters to date, with her best finish a fourth by Seize the Night in a $148,000 turf allowance Nov. 5 at Churchill Downs.
“Of course, I want to produce for my owners and have a really good meet and make some money, but I feel like if you keep the horses happy and healthy that they’re going to produce for you and that’s the biggest thing for me,” Cunningham said. “Keep them happy and healthy and having owners really just enjoy what we’re doing.”
Cunningham said she has four stalls at Oaklawn. Seize the Night, a two-time allowance winner last season at Oaklawn for Lukas and owner Kevin Horton of Marshall, Ark., and The Princess Says have been at Oaklawn since late November.
Cunningham said she’s pointing Seize the Night for Oaklawn’s $200,000 Tinsel Stakes Dec. 16 .
Both Lukas and Stewart, a former Lukas assistant, had long business relationships with owner Willis Horton, Kevin Horton’s late father.
Lukas and Willis Horton campaigned Eclipse Award winners Will Take Charge (2013) and Take Charge Brandi (2014). Stewart and Horton teamed to win the Kentucky Oaks, the nation’s biggest race for 3-year-old fillies, in 2006 with Lemons Forever. Cunningham saddled the Horton-owned Last Samurai to win the $1 million G2-Oaklawn Handicap in April 2022. Horton died in October 2022.
Cunningham said her connection to the Horton family, through Lukas and Stewart, led Seize the Night to her barn.
“Wayne has been super supportive of me going on my own,” Cunningham said. “He and Dallas have been top supporters for me.”
Cunningham, on behalf of owner Charles Jennings, claimed The Princess Says for $30,000 out of a Nov. 19 victory at Churchill Downs. Jennings owns the Back Porch Grill restaurant in Hot Springs.
Cunningham grew up near Nashville, Tenn., but now considers Hot Springs home after purchasing a house late last year adjacent to Oaklawn property.
“Literally, if you stand at the end of my old barn (Victory Gallop), you can see my house,” Cunningham said.
As a teenager, Cunningham worked as a veterinary technician at Remington Park in Oklahoma City. She later was a hot walker for Danny Pish, then worked as an exercise rider for the Texas-based trainer before becoming his assistant at 19 at Lone Star Park in suburban Dallas, helping manage a 50-horse string.
Cunningham is the stepdaughter of retired jockey Rob Williams, whose 4,254 career victories rank 67th in North American history, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. Cunningham, who gallops and breezes her horses, graduated in 2019 from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree in communication.
First post for Oaklawn’s opening-day program Friday is 12:30 p.m. (Central). … New York-based owner/trainer David Jacobson has two horses entered Friday at Oaklawn, including multiple stakes winner Stage Left in the third race, a starter-allowance sprint. Jacobson, as an owner/trainer, recorded his first career Oaklawn victories last season. … Multiple Oaklawn stakes winner Whelen Springs worked a half-mile in :50.20 Saturday morning at Oaklawn for trainer Lindsay Schultz.