Opening Day for Horse Racing: January 13. Season runs through April 15.
words: Dwain Hebda
Images: courtesy Oaklawn Racing and Gaming
Technically, Oaklawn Racing and Gaming shuts down Christmas and Easter, but that’s just window dressing. Between the historic thoroughbred racetrack and the spanking-new gaming area, Oaklawn is perpetually on, day and night, seven days a week.
Any way you want to look at it – politically, socially, economically – Oaklawn has been a major component of the story of Arkansas. And its ongoing, seamless transition from a racing-only venue to near around-the-clock entertainment over the past sixteen years has been the envy of tracks coast to coast.
“It used to be that tracks had the opinion that they were a sports venue and they were a betting venue. So all they needed to do was open up their doors and people were going to come to bet and to gamble,” says Jennifer Hoyt, media relations manager. “For a long time, horse racing across the country was the only place where you could do that.
“But now you have gaming in Indiana, you have it in Iowa, you have it in Mississippi, you have it all over the country, practically. There’s a lot more competition that horse racing never had to face before. What we’ve discovered is you have to make it an entertainment destination.”
The Sport of Kings – steeped in tradition and awash in superstition, unwritten rules and, occasionally, intrigue – has held marquee billing here since 1904. In the early days, racing was regarded both as economic boon and moral bust and shifting political winds repeatedly interrupted Oaklawn’s history during its first three decades.
Local businessmen finally took matters into their own hands, forming the Business Men’s Racing Association and, in defiance of both the state legislature and pending litigation, sanctioned the technically-illegal 1934 racing season. The next year, lawmakers legalized pari-mutuel wagering, and Oaklawn hasn’t looked back since, attracting well over a million fans a year. Arkansas Derby Day alone exceeds sixty thousand fans; the Rebel Stakes over thirty thousand.
The handle – or, total betting – for these days averages around eight million dollars for the Rebel Stakes and over twelve million on Derby Day. Winners here are in prime position for the sport’s marquee runs: Oaklawn crowds cheered 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby and two other horses Afleet Alex (2005) and Smarty Jones (2004), won here before claiming two of three Triple Crown races.
The horseflesh is only part of Oaklawn’s echoes; if you know where to look, you will see nods to the past all around you. Some are conspicuous, such as photos of past champions or the oversized racing-themed cartoon drawings that adorn the walls, lending a nostalgic 1950s feel to the cavernous grandstand.
Others are less obvious, such as the iconic, life-size horse-and-jockey statue by the main gate. To newcomers, it’s merely a lovely piece of artwork, but the long-timer understands it’s also a tribute to the reigning Arkansas Derby winner. The statue is re-painted to match the steed’s coat and rider’s silks and is unofficially one of the most-photographed spots in the Spa City.
Such traditions survive intact thanks to the unbroken line of ownership by the Cella family, dating back to 1914. Under this leadership, Oaklawn has grown into one of the most successful and important stops in thoroughbred racing while at the same time maintaining a friendly, welcoming atmosphere.
“Horsemen like coming here because the community of Hot Springs and the state of Arkansas get behind the race meet,” Jennifer says. “A lot of racetracks have seen their attendance dwindle; you could go out and shoot off a cannon and not hit a single patron at some of the tracks. Here, it’s an event. People cheer. If you’re a trainer or a jockey you can go out to dinner and you’re going to get recognized as if you’re a celebrity. People like that.”
The ground upon which the track stands was a pasture forever, a freak clearing amid stately oaks that gave the place its name. Recreational, pick-up horse races happened here since before the Civil War. The original grandstand was designed by famed Chicago architect Zachary Taylor Davis, who also designed Wrigley Field. It was glass-enclosed and heated, one-of-a-kind features that drove the princely $500,000 price tag, about thirteen million in today’s money.
The racetrack saw its share of scallywags, too. Eighty-some years ago, Hot Springs was a haven for mobsters who often took their entertainment betting the ponies. Al Capone was a regular at Oaklawn, as was Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Ben “Bugsy” Siegal and permanent Spa City resident gangster Owney “The Killer” Madden.
Oaklawn was also a favorite of major league ballplayers who were either in spring training or breaking it, including Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, and Satchel Paige, among many others. The co-mingling of professional athletes, mobsters, and a gambling venue made for a spicy brew and lent to Hot Springs’ bawdy reputation.
The criminal celebrities are gone now but Oaklawn still attracts the more benign variety – entertainers, politicians and the like. Some of them own racehorses, stabling them in the expansive barns behind the track and working them out for the meet. Others are merely fans, indistinguishable from the thousands of other visitors who pass through the gates as they have for generations.
Today, just as the track is part of the neighborhood, it is also part of the state’s fabric. The place may be a multi-million-dollar business and a giant in the racing industry, but the average Arkansan doesn’t see it that way, and that’s what makes Oaklawn unique.
“One of the reasons that I fell in love with Oaklawn is because it is a family. We operate at a corporate level because we have to; we’re that big, we’re nationally-known both for our gaming and our racing,” says Karie Hobby, director of food and beverage operations. “But I will tell you; it is a family. That’s just the way we operate.”
If the historic grandstand and paddock is lazy summer baseball, Oaklawn’s gaming area is mixed martial arts, all flashy lights, bright colors and fast action. On a cold winter Friday, machines jangle and coins hiss and clatter as a good crowd tries its luck. The parking lot, while not jammed, is filled enough that latecomers face a brisk walk or snag a ride with the shuttles that endlessly circle from the outer reaches to the front door.
The company recently invested twenty million dollars’ worth of improvements at the grounds and a healthy chunk of it went into expanded gaming amenities. It’s not a casino in the truest sense of the word – only certain games are legal under Arkansas law – but there are enough “games of skill” including live and video blackjack and poker to draw crowds from all over.
The layperson might assume that the gaming customer is merely a racing customer waiting for the season to start. In actuality, the gaming and racing crowds are two surprisingly unique clienteles.
“You’re never going to make a person who likes to play a reel machine a horse wagering fan. Your poker players, your blackjack players, there’s a little bit of a crossover, but there’s a lot of instant gratification from the gaming machines,” Jennifer says. “The fact that they coexist so well at Oaklawn is the reason why we will continue to grow our business.”
One thing upon which both race fans and gamers can agree is they get hungry and Oaklawn’s food is on par with the other amenities. Nowhere is that more apparent than with the facility’s legendary corned beef. No one is really sure how or why corned beef caught on at Oaklawn, but you haven’t truly visited the place until you’ve munched on one of these legendary sandwiches waiting for your horse to come in, literally or figuratively.
“Folks around this area that don’t even like corned beef love the corned beef here at Oaklawn, they expect it,” Karie says. “It’s a tradition. It’s a staple in our DNA.”
The company buys its corned beef by the semi-truckload from Kelly Green Corned Beef in Chicago and will sell more than seventy-two thousand pounds of it in a calendar year; in the four-month racing season alone, enough to make seventy-four thousand sandwiches. And about those sandwiches, you can get them in two varieties, corned beef, and Reuben, with the former outselling the latter just under two to one.
Karie is a Reuben girl – has been since tagging along with her horse-trainer father all through her formative years here – but in true restauranteur fashion, quickly reminds the visitor of the other menu attractions to be had. If your tastes run to a different type of brine, treat yourself to a dozen Blue Point oysters on the half shell, shipped in fresh from the Gulf to the tune of almost fifty thousand during racing season. Or, for the ultimate in quick, good eats, don’t pass on the all-beef hot dogs of which nearly three miles will be sold during racing season.
Karie said as much as new technology, promotions and marketing, food service at Oaklawn is a bellwether for the future of the company, as its on-premises bars and restaurants have begun to attract their own clientele independent of other attractions.
“Three or four years ago clients came out here for gaming or a racing event, and we happened to have good food that goes along with it,” Karie says. “Now we’re seeing the transition where we’re making a name in the neighborhood that we have good food, that we have the best sports bar in Hot Springs. We’re starting to make that transition in the minds of our clients that we’ve got more than just the games and the races.”
How to Oaklawn like a local
Oaklawn is more about the spirit than the stone of the place; itís the taking in of an experience more than a century in the making. Hereís how you do it:
Get here early
The price of being a neighborhood track in a historic town like Hot Springs is less-than-desirable traffic management, especially on the biggest racing days of the year. That, plus expansion that’s eaten up parking spaces, demands advance planning.
Don’t cut it close to post time if you don’t like to hike or if you want a prime seat. By the way, Section H on the grandstand’s second level is considered the choicest view in the house and the pick of track veterans.
Newcomers are always welcome
If you don’t know your exacta from a hole in the ground, not to worry. Spend a couple bucks on a tip sheet and program through the door and a little time talking up the mutuel tellers at the betting window (just not right before post!). You’ll get the basics in no time. Or, seek out the staffers in the distinctive red jackets; they know everything and are there to help.
Check out the star attractions
Oaklawn has one of the only indoor paddocks (prep areas), and it’s a prime spot to check out the horses up-close before any given race. Or, true equine nuts can take advantage of Saturday Dawn at Oaklawn where from 7:30 to 9:30am visitors can watch horses train, tour the barns and mingle with owners, trainers, and jockeys. It’s free and so is the coffee and Danish they give you.
Eat and eat hearty
You will not find better corned beef in the nation than at Hot Springs’ legendary track, period, whether you take it lean in the corned beef sandwich or dressed up in the Reuben on rye. The oysters on the half shell and hot dogs are equally tasty and while there are plenty of sit-down options here, know that they often require reservations. Happily, any concession stand can handle your needs while you study your steeds.
Bring the family
There are age restrictions to bet, of course, but minors are welcomed on race day. Plan for nice weather when the infield is open and enjoy Arkansas spring flora, a picnic blanket, and some great racing. They even put up inflatables to keep the youngsters happy on certain days of the year.
Revel in your superstitions
Let’s face it, most of us simply guess when it comes to picking horses. Know that this is OK, even time-honored. Ask around and you’ll find all manner of folk wisdom on the subject: Bet a gray horse on an overcast day, for instance. Look for a horse with a braided mane, as it supposedly suggests an owner who is confident enough to dress up the mount for the winner’s circle.
These old track saws, and many others, are certainly no more scientific than your system of always picking green silks in March, so have at it and have fun.