(Melting Snow at Oaklawn Park / Coady Photography & Courtesy of Oaklawn Park)

Amescua Making the Most of First Oaklawn Experience

Trainer Rene Amescua ended 2021 with a bang.

Amescua saddled three winners New Year’s Eve, his first career strikes at Oaklawn since migrating from his native California to Hot Springs for the 2021-2022 meeting that began Dec. 3.

“Every now and then, it flops out right,” Amescua said following training hours Wednesday morning.

Amescua, 59, said the hook to Oaklawn came through another California trainer, the late Mel Stute, who brought a small string to Oaklawn in 1989 and recorded four career stakes victories in Hot Springs, notably the $250,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) for older horses in 1987 with champion Snow Chief.

“He used to come here and a friend of mine used to come with the horses,” Amescua said. “He always told me how much fun he had here, so I always wanted to come here.”

Already armed with more than 900 career victories, the bulk coming in California, Amescua added to his total Dec. 31 when he won the third race with I’m the Boss of Me ($8.60), seventh race with Apprehend ($8) and the ninth race with Melting Snow ($25.80).

All three winners were previously with Southern California-based Peter Miller, who announced in November that he was taking a sabbatical from training.

Amescua said he has 18 horses at Oaklawn, including another former Miller trainee, millionaire multiple stakes winner C Z Rocket. Miller co-owns C Z Rocket, who was Oaklawn’s top male sprinter at the 2021 meeting after winning the $200,000 Hot Springs Stakes and the $500,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3). C Z Rocket is a candidate for the $150,000 King Cotton Stakes Jan. 29, Amescua said.

“The primary amount of horses here came from (Los Angeles),” Amescua said. “Pete Miller asked me if I was interested in coming here. He gave me these horses to give it a shot with, so that’s kind of how that came to fruition, even though I was sort of looking for a way to get here anyway.”

Amescua, who came up under the late Mike Mitchell and Ron Ellis, started his first horse in 1987, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. Through Friday, Amescua had recorded 935 victories and his horses had earned $11,191,096 in purses. He had been a fixture in California, particularly the Bay Area, before relocating to the Midwest for the first time.

“I’ve had a pretty good run on my own,” Amescua said. “I haven’t had, like, any big super horses, but we always manage to win some races.”

Sunday’s Feature

There isn’t a stake Sunday at Oaklawn, but the eighth race could pass for one.

Sunday’s featured eighth race is a 1 3/16-mile allowance event for older horses that could be a steppingstone for several entrants to the $150,000 Temperence Hill Stakes at 1 ½ miles April 2. It has drawn a field of nine.

The 5-2 program favorite is Night Ops, a Grade 3 winner of $905,823 for trainer Brad Cox and prominent Arkansas owner Steve Landers. Night Ops recorded his biggest local career victory to date in the $350,000 Essex Handicap for older horses in 2020.

Although winless in nine starts last year, Night Ops finished second four times and competed against some of the country’s top horses, including Maxfield, Silver State, Max Player and Art Collector. Night Ops hasn’t started since finishing sixth in the $750,000 Clark Stakes (G1) Nov. 26 at Churchill Downs.

“He had a long year,” Cox said. “Freshened him up a little bit, but he’s a very sturdy horse. He’s danced a lot of dances and still going strong.”

Rob Atras is scheduled to send out his first starter of the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting in You’re to Blame, among five recent arrivals for the New York-based trainer.

You’re to Blame, a Grade 3 winner of $875,600, races for prominent New York owner Michael Dubb and exits an eighth-place finish in the $125,000 Queens County Stakes Dec. 19 at Aqueduct. Atras, on behalf of Dubb, claimed You’re to Blame out of an Oct. 2 victory at Belmont Park for $80,000.

In You’re to Blame’s first start for his new connections, he finished third in a Nov. 21 allowance/optional claimer at Churchill Downs. The winner, Beau Luminarie, returned to run a strong third behind millionaire multiple Grade 2 winner Lone Rock and Thomas Shelby in the $150,000 Tinsel Stakes Dec. 18 at Oaklawn.

“He ran a really good race at Churchill and we were hoping he would move forward off that race,” Atras said. “We’re not really exactly sure why he ran so dull the other day here. We’re not sure if it was the track or he was down on the inside or no Lasix. We’re not really sure, but maybe it was a combination of things. Of course, we’re hoping he’ll set better down there.”

You’re to Blame, who gets Lasix Sunday, finished seventh in last year’s Temperence Hill for trainer Ron Moquett of Hot Springs.

Also entered are multiple stakes winner Strong Tide for trainer Michael Lauer; Fort Peck, runner-up to Life is Good in the $300,000 Kelso Handicap (G2) Sept. 25 at Belmont Park for trainer Robertino Diodoro; Tinsel seventh-place finisher Huge Bigly for trainer John Ortiz; Grade 3-placed My Sixth Sense for trainer Steve Hobby of Hot Springs; Grade 2-placed Taishan for trainer Richard Baltas; 2021 Oaklawn allowance winner Trident Hit for Moquett; and millionaire multiple graded stakes winner Tenfold for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen.

“It’s a good race,” Diodoro said. “Tough race.”

Probable post time for the eighth race, which has a $102,000 purse, is 3:46 p.m. (Central).

Finish Lines

Jockey Tiago Pereira, previously based in Southern California, recorded his second career Oaklawn victory aboard Sophie’s Angel ($6.60) in Friday’s opener for trainer Kim Puhl. … Truly a Rocket ($19) represented the 199th career Oaklawn victory for jockey Alex Canchari in Friday’s second race. It was the 982nd victory overall for Canchari, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. … Four-time Oaklawn training champion David Vance finished 1-2 in Friday’s fourth race, with favored Alexandros ($6.60) edging Cave Run to give jockey Jon Court his 704th career victory in Hot Springs. … Wobberjod ($9.80) remained unbeaten in two career starts in Friday’s fifth race for trainer Ron Moquett of Hot Springs and Oaklawn owner Louis Cella. … Warrior’s Battle ($6.20), a 3-year-old half-sister to millionaire Warrior’s Charge, recorded her second consecutive victory in Friday’s sixth race for jockey Florent Geroux and trainer Brad Cox. Warrior’s Battle, who carried the Green Bay Packers-themed silks of co-owner and super fan Paul Farr, is entered in Keeneland’s January Horses of All Ages Sale as a racing or broodmare prospect. … Tap for Me, a 4-year-old daughter of super sire Tapit and champion Groupie Doll, finished a troubled fourth in Friday’s seventh race, a maiden special weights sprint, for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen and breeder/owner Mandy Pope. … Wings of an Angel ($16) gave jockey Luis Quinonez his 618th career Oaklawn victory in Friday’s seventh race. … Famed, a 3-year-old half-sister to champion and 2021 Oaklawn Southwest winner Essential Quality, finished third in Friday’s eighth race, a first-level allowance/optional claiming route, for Cox and Godolphin, which also bred the daughter of champion Uncle Mo. … Oaklawn surpassed 100 claims at the meet Friday when 16 horses were taken for a combined $266,000. Through Friday, Day 13 of the scheduled 66-day meeting, 114 claims totaled $2,525,250.