HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- Jockey Luis Quinonez might have had a little help from the heavens at Oaklawn Park on Friday, when he guided Shotgun Gulch to a nose victory over favorite Decelerator in the $50,000 Dixie Belle. The race was the highlight of an opening-day program that drew 20,311 patrons, and following it Quinonez was quick to dedicate the win to Gerry DiLaura, his agent of 18 years who died in December.
"This will help me," Quinonez said. "Before, I was just walking around with my head down like a lost pup. Winning a race like this helped get my confidence back. I'm going to miss him."
Oaklawn opened its meet under ideal weather conditions, with sunshine and temperatures in the mid-50s. It was a stark contrast from last year's first card of the meet, when temperatures were in the mid-20s and officials worked around the clock to have the track in shape for racing. Attendance for the opener a year ago was 15,863.
"It couldn't be a better day for opening day here," Quinonez said. "The weather was great. I hope it stays like this."
Shotgun Gulch ($8.40) won her third career stakes in the Dixie Belle, a six-furlong race for 3-year-old fillies. Kim Ewing, who trains Shotgun Gulch for C.R. Trout, said the filly would now be pointed for the $50,000 Martha Washington at a mile at Oaklawn on Feb. 13. The race is the first local prep for the Grade 2, $300,000 Fantasy on April 2.
Oaklawn's opening program was a mix of moderate-priced winners and the occasional bomber. Poni Colada paid $8.80 to win the first race, while Phatzo returned $91.60 in the fourth, when he gutted out a front-running win on a tiring track that was kinder to off-the-pace runners.
Other high points on the program included Corey Nakatani winning his first race in three months aboard a romping Brother Lowell, who cruised home by eight lengths in the second. Nakatani had taken time off to make a major circuit move, leaving his longtime Southern California base to ride Oaklawn and later Kentucky.
The opening of the Oaklawn meet is one of the most anticipated sports events in Arkansas, and patrons began securing spots on the apron more than hour before post for the first race.
Handle on the nine-race card from all sources was $3,613,399, down from $4,205,368 on the corresponding card a year ago. Oaklawn's races were not available to sites in seven states on the Eastern Seaboard because of a simulcast dispute between the sites, represented by the MidAtlantic Cooperative, and TrackNet Media, which represents Oaklawn, among other tracks. TrackNet is a partnership between Churchill Downs Inc. and Magna Entertainment.