HOT SPRINGS, Ark.— The Oaklawn trainer’s race annually boils down to Big Blue (the stable colors of Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen) vs. Big Red (the stable colors of Robertino Diodoro).
The trainers have finished 1-2 in the standings at every Oaklawn meeting since 2017, with Asmussen claiming the title in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2021, which marked his record-tying 11th overall. Diodoro broke through in 2020, a year after helping his major client, M and M Racing (Mike and Mickala Sisk), establish a single-season Oaklawn record for owners with 61 victories.
Diodoro returns to Hot Springs with a full barn (40 horses) in hopes of unseating Asmussen, North America’s all-time winningest trainer and the second-winningest trainer in Oaklawn history.
“I think we’ve got a few more maidens this year, which is always good to have,” Diodoro said. “Hopefully, once we get a little close to running, hopefully, some of them show enough promise to run maiden special weights. But maidens overall are good to have. We definitely have more of them. Still trying to gather up a few more for the meet.”
Diodoro’s unquestioned stable star is multiple Grade 2 winner and millionaire Lone Rock, a 6-year-old Majestic Warrior gelding who has flourished at marathon distances.
Lone Rock recently arrived at Oaklawn after setting a 1 5/8-mile track record in winning the $250,000 Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance Stakes (G2) Nov. 6 at Del Mar. Lone Rock won allowance races at 1 1/16 and 1 ½ miles during the 2021 Oaklawn meeting and is under consideration for its inaugural $200,000 Tinsel Stakes Dec. 18, Diodoro said. The Tinsel is 1 1/8 miles.
Diodoro said the Tinsel could be an option for win-machine Thomas Shelby, who captured a starter-allowance route Thursday at Churchill Downs. Thomas Shelby, who is owned by M and M Racing, has won three consecutive starts and 7 of 11 overall this year. He was a two-time winner at the 2021 Oaklawn meeting.
Diodoro said Grade 2 winner Keepmeinmind is receiving a break a Cypress Creek Farm in Midway, Ky., after missing the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby (G1) Sept. 25 at Parx because of a foot abscess. Keepmeinmind began his busy 2021 campaign with a sixth-place finish in the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) for 3-year-olds in March at Oaklawn. He later finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby, fourth in the Preakness and fourth in his last start, the $1.25 million Travers Stakes (G1) Aug. 28 at Saratoga.
“He’s having a short little break right now,” Diodoro said. “You’ll see him, most likely, the last part of the meet here. He’s doing good. We really just gave him the time off because he was tired.”
Diodoro said Ava’s Grace, runner-up in the $600,000 Fantasy Stakes (G3) for 3-year-old fillies last April at Oaklawn, is about to resume training and there’s a chance she could start at the 2021-2022 meeting. Ava’s Grace is unraced since June.
A 2-year-old to watch is Dream Lith, a Medaglia d’Oro filly who won her Aug. 8 career debut at Saratoga and finished fifth in the $400,000 Alcibiades Stakes (G1) Oct. 8 at Keeneland in her last start.
Diodoro began wintering at Oaklawn in 2015 and has 238 victories overall, including eight stakes. He won nine races in 2015, 22 in 2016, 31 in 2017, 32 in 2018, 48 in 2019 and a personal-best 52 in 2020. Diodoro had 44 winners at the 2021 Oaklawn meeting.
Diodoro’s biggest career victory in Hot Springs came in 2017 with Inside Straight in the $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) for older horses.
Asmussen has 755 career Oaklawn victories. He won 60 races at the 2021 meeting.
Franco Returning to Oaklawn
Giovania Franco (Coady Photography)
Southern California-based jockey Geovanni Franco announced on Twitter Saturday that he is returning to Oaklawn for the 2021-2022 meeting that begins Dec. 3. Franco will be represented by retired Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens.
Franco rode regularly in 2016 and 2017 at Oaklawn, amassing 61 victories, including four stakes, and $2,573,621 in purse earnings. He rode 16 winners in his 2016 debut and 45 in 2017 to tie for third in the standings.
Franco capped his 2017 meeting with a closing-day double, guiding Inside Straight ($41.40) to an upset in the $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) for older horses for trainer Robertino Diodoro and won the following race, a starter-allowance sprint for older horses, aboard Long Station for trainer Paul Holthus of Hot Springs.
Franco won three other stakes races in 2017 at Oaklawn – $125,000 King Cotton for older sprinters aboard Storm Advisory for Diodoro, $125,000 Gazebo aboard for 3-year-old sprinters aboard Rockshaw for trainer Ron Moquett of Hot Springs and the $150,000 Purple Martin for 3-year-old female sprinters aboard Golden Mischief for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. Golden Mischief, the original runner-up, was placed first because of backstretch interference.
Franco relocated to Southern California shortly after the 2017 Oaklawn meeting ended. He won the $400,000 Beholder Mile Stakes (G1) for fillies and mares aboard Secret Spice for trainer Richard Baltas in 2019 at Santa Anita. Franco finished second aboard Lieutenant Dan for trainer Steve Miyadi in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) Nov. 6 at Del Mar.
A native of Mexico, Franco rode his first winner in 2009 and entered Sunday with 903 victories overall and $24,022,154 in career purse earnings, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization.
Multiple stakes-winning sprinter Joy’s Rocket worked a half-mile in :50.80 over a fast track Saturday morning at Oaklawn for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. Joy’s Rocket was runner-up in the $250,000 Raven Run Stakes (G2) for 3-year-old filly sprinters Oct. 23 at Keeneland in her last start. … Asmussen is scheduled to send out three 2021 Oaklawn stakes winners in upcoming days. Jaxson Traveler (Bachelor) is entered in the $250,000 Steel Valley Sprint Stakes for 3-year-olds Monday at Mahoning Valley, Super Stock (Arkansas Derby) is entered in the $250,000 Zia Park Derby for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles Tuesday at Zia Park and Pauline’s Pearl (Fantasy) is entered in the $200,000 Zia Park Oaks for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/16 miles Tuesday at Zia Park. … Matera, an allowance winner at the 2021 Oaklawn meeting, finished second in the $300,000 Chilukki Stakes (G3) for fillies and mares, 3 and up, at 1 mile Saturday at Churchill Downs. Robert Yates/Oaklawn Park Press Office
Top Photo: Robertino Diodoro (Coady Photography)