Arkansas HBPA President Bill Walmsley watches as Oaklawn President Louis Cella rings the bell last season. (Coady Photography)
Program Returns to Oaklawn to Benefit Aftercare
Oaklawn Barn Notes by Robert Yates
HOT SPRINGS, Ark.—After some test rings last spring, Oaklawn’s fund-raising efforts for local Thoroughbred aftercare began in earnest Friday afternoon with the opening of its scheduled 68-day live racing season.
The $14,000 raised during the final six days of the 2021-2022 meeting was through the new “Ring the Bell” program, which gives winning connections following each race an opportunity to donate at least $100 toward aftercare.
Money raised is earmarked for the Arkansas Thoroughbred Retirement Program and Rehabilitation Foundation Inc., a collaboration between the Arkansas division of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and Oaklawn. It was recently established as a safe path to a second career for Oaklawn-raced horses upon retirement.
Donations are signaled – loudly – by hand ringing a large copper-colored bell hung in the back of the Larry Snyder Winner’s Circle.
The idea of intertwining a bell with aftercare was the brainchild of trainer Ron Moquett of Hot Springs, best known for his work with Whitmore, a seven-time Oaklawn stakes winner and 2020 Eclipse Award winner as the country’s champion male sprinter.
“I wanted to bring attention and give everybody the opportunity to, when they’re at their happiest, they can help right then,” Moquett said. “Ring that bell and it starts up a conversation. ‘Hey, that bell is ringing for the respect and love of the horse.’ The bell is symbolic and it teaches everybody through the whole grandstand that whenever you hear that bell, that means somebody has donated money to the retired racehorse program. We’d like to hear the bell ring every race, every day. What the sound means is we’re helping retired racehorses.”
The Ring the Bell program was officially launched following the third race April 29, when Oaklawn President Louis Cella and Bill Walmsley, a longtime Thoroughbred owner and president of the Arkansas HBPA, each donated $5,000 on behalf of their respective groups. Cella is also a Thoroughbred owner and the son of Oaklawn’s late president, Charles Cella, who campaigned 1995 champion grass horse Northern Spur.
“It’s tough to jumpstart something that is difficult for other horsemen to follow there in Arkansas,” said Louis Cella, who was named Oaklawn’s president following his father’s death December 2017. “They participate in other jurisdictions. Our jurisdiction, our constituents if you will, are not as big and able to take care of the horses like they are in Kentucky, in Florida, in Texas. So, we need to jog them a little bit. I think the bell is a super idea to give everyone that one last pause to say, ‘You know what? This is important for Arkansas.’ ”
Moquett said his inspiration for a bell came from Saratoga, the historic upstate New York venue. A bell in the winner’s circle there is hand rung five times, “precisely” 17 minutes before post time of each race, according to the New York Racing Association. Oaklawn’s version features a prominent three-line engraving – “This Bell Rings for The Love & Respect Of The HORSE!!!” – stacked across the front.
“We think that it’s going to be a really good deal to help raise awareness and funds to do good stuff,” Moquett said. “Nobody is doing it like this. It think this will spark some things across the country.”
Moquett and Jeanette Milligan, Arkansas HBPA executive director, both said they had hoped to begin the program earlier in the 2021-2022 meeting, but the project was delayed because the bell was shipped from Pennsylvania and time was needed to mount it properly. Milligan said the bell was purchased by the Arkansas HBPA.
The Arkansas Thoroughbred Retirement Program uses a nearby farm of longtime Oaklawn pony person Jan Pettinger and her husband, retired jockey Don Pettinger, as a foster home for horses awaiting adoption.
Milligan said 15 horses were on the farm at the end of the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting in early May. That number is now six, according to Oaklawn director of racing Jennifer Hoyt, a point person for the Arkansas Thoroughbred Retirement Program. Hoyt said it costs at least $500 each month to properly care for horses waiting to be rehomed. Second careers for retired Thoroughbreds could range from a stable pony like former Moquett trainee Meanbone, an eventing horse such as 2017 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) winner Inside Straight to a simple pleasure horse for trail riding.
“I think as the game has progressed, everybody’s aware that there’s a lot of horses out there and you’ve got to find a home for them when they’re done competing,” said Robert N. Cline, an Arkansas owner/trainer who made three donations following victories during the final two days (May 7-8) of the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting. “I’ve fed horses for months, waiting to find them a good home. So, we do our best. If we can all chip in and help on the cause, I think we all benefit from that. It’s not hard to talk a guy out of a hundred dollars after he wins a race. Everybody’s happy and cheery. The purses are big enough here that if you’re lucky enough to stagger across there in front, what’s a hundred dollars?”
To increase attention to Thoroughbred aftercare, Oaklawn created the $150,000 Ring the Bell Stakes this year. The 6-furlong race is Saturday.
For more information on the Arkansas Thoroughbred Retirement Program, visitwww.ArkansasThoroughbredRetirement.com.