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Night Ops Favored in Saturday’s Fifth Season
Night Ops winning the 2020 Essex (Credit: Coady Photography)

Night Ops Favored in Saturday’s Fifth Season

HOT SPRINGS, AR – The road to Oaklawn’s biggest two-turn race for older handicap horses begins Saturday with the $150,000 Fifth Season Stakes.

The Fifth Season goes as the sixth of nine races, with probable post time 3:39 PM (Central). Racing begins at 1 PM The 1-mile race drew a field of seven, including Pioneer Spirit, second-division winner of last year’s split event.

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The 2/1 Fifth Season program favorite is Night Ops for trainer Brad Cox and owner Steve Landers, a prominent Arkansas automobile dealer and member of the state’s racing commission. Night Ops will be making his first start since winning the $100,000 Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap (G3) July 5 at Prairie Meadows.

Nine of the 37 Fifth Season nominees are trained by Cox, illustrating potential division strength and the desire to secure a bucket-list item – the $1 million Oaklawn Handicap (G2) April 17. Following the Fifth Season, Oaklawn’s traditional two-turn series for older handicap horses continues with the $600,000 Razorback (G3) Feb. 13 and the $500,000 Essex March 13. Cox is pointing millionaire multiple Grade 3 winner Owendale for the Razorback. The trainer won last year’s Razorback with Warrior’s Charge, the Essex with Night Ops and finished second in the Oaklawn Handicap with Warrior’s Charge. Cox, in 2015, won the Fifth Season and finished second in the Oaklawn Handicap with Carve.

“This is just a good series here,” Cox said. “It all comes down to the Oaklawn Handicap. We’ve been able to win all of those races, with the exception of the Oaklawn Handicap. We’ve knocked on the door with Carve and Warrior’s Charge. That’s really a race I’ve zeroed in on.”

Night Ops ran third in last year’s first division of the Fifth Season and Cox said “it’s a good place to get him started” again in 2021. Cox was Oaklawn’s third-leading trainer last year and a finalist for an Eclipse Award as the country’s outstanding trainer of 2020.

The projected Fifth Season field from the rail out: Night Ops, Martin Garcia to ride, 122 pounds, 2-1 on the morning line; Full Authority, Joe Rocco Jr., 115, 15-1; Pioneer Spirit, David Cohen, 122, 5-1; Silver State, Ricardo Santana Jr., 115, 3-1; Hunka Burning Love, David Cabrera, 122, 6-1; Nifty, Ken Tohill, 115, 15-1; and Combatant, Joe Talamo, 122, 5-2.

Millionaire Combatant is among approximately 20 horses on the grounds for Southern California-based John Sadler, who won 15 races last year in his debut as an Oaklawn regular to finish fifth in the standings.

Combatant, an allowance winner at the 2019 Oaklawn meeting for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, recorded his biggest career victory to date in the $600,000 Santa Anita Handicap (G1) last March at Santa Anita. Combatant exits a third-place finish in the $100,000 Native Diver Stakes Nov. 21 at Del Mar. The ridgling finished 10th in last year’s Oaklawn Handicap.

“We thought he would be a good fit over there this winter, so he flew in last weekend,” Sadler said. “He got some good races on his form, so we think he’s going to be tough.”

Sadler said he was pleased with Combatant’s post draw.

“He likes the outside,” Sadler said.

Pioneer Spirit captured the second division of last year’s Fifth Season for Robertino Diodoro, Oaklawn’s leading trainer in 2020, but is winless in seven starts since. Pioneer Spirit finished fourth in the Razorback and third in the Essex following the Fifth Season.

“He’s a funny horse,” Diodoro said. “He runs when he feels like it. He does like this racetrack better than most tracks. That’s the part that’s funny about him. He’s a very quirky horse.”

The Asmussen-trained Silver State finished third in the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (G2) for 3-year-olds last year at Fair Grounds and closed his 2020 campaign with two sharp allowance victories in Kentucky.

The most intriguing entrant may be win-machine Hunka Burning Love for owner/trainer Karl Broberg.

Hunka Burning Love has won eight times since Broberg claimed the gelding for $32,000 last April at Oaklawn, including the $75,000 Lone Star Mile in June at Lone Star Park and the $60,000 Jeffrey A. Hawk Memorial Stakes Dec. 18 at Remington Park in his last start. Hunka Burning Love was North America’s co-winningest horse in 2020, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. But, as Broberg noted, the gelding is winless in four career starts at Oaklawn, including a seventh-place finish when he was claimed.

“It truly wasn’t on my radar at all, just because he ran so poorly at Oaklawn last year,” Broberg said of the Fifth Season. “I nominated him to everything, but then when he breezed at Delta the way he did the other morning, I’m like, ‘We’ve got to give him one try.’ ”

Hunka Burning Love completed major preparations for the Fifth Season by working a half-mile in :49.80 Jan. 16 at Delta Downs, where the 7-year-old son of Into Mischief is based. The time ranked third out of 54 recorded at the distance, according to Equibase.

Broberg was the country’s winningest trainer in 2014-2019 and finished second to Asmussen last year with 327 victories, according to Equibase. Broberg won 12 races last year at Oaklawn.

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