Published Jan/Feb 2006

Oaklawn Jockey Club in Hot Springs readies for another season.
By Pam Grout

Movie buffs this month will head to Park City, Utah, to check out the new crop of indie flicks at the Sundance Film Festival. Baseball nuts are rummaging through drawers to locate that half-used bottle of sunscreen in preparation for scouting this year’s talent on spring training fields in Florida and Arizona come February and March.

But if you’re a horse racing fan, there’s no better place to preview this season’s Triple Crown hopefuls than Oaklawn Jockey Club, 2705 Central Ave., in Hot Springs, Ark.

This year’s live racing season opens Jan. 20 and culminates April 15 with the $1 million Arkansas Derby, a 1-1/8-mile dirt race that has become known in racing circles as the premier prep race for the Kentucky Derby.

In fact, anyone in Hot Springs two years ago now may be selling Smarty Jones buttons online, raising money to finance this year’s trip to the sleepy little mountain town that turns into a horse racing mecca each spring. The Smarty buttons that Oaklawn gave away free in 2004 were going for $10 bucks a pop, down from their current Kentucky Derby high of $25, but still not a bad profit margin.

But enough about Smarty who was just another hopeful when Oaklawn owner Charles Cella first hatched his scheme to celebrate Oaklawn’s 100-year anniversary. Cella offered $5 million to any horse who could win the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby before winning the Kentucky

Derby and Preakness.

What you’re looking for is this year’s “Smarty Jones,” the horse that will capture the public’s imagination, make a valiant run for the Triple Crown and turn horse racing novices into savvy handicappers. But the eternal conundrum remains, “Which horse?”

This guide to Oaklawn Jockey Club may reveal the answer to you, and most importantly, suggest ways to make the most out of your trip to Hot Springs.

The Oaklawn Jockey Club

Not only is Oaklawn the oldest family-run racetrack in America, it’s the longest running family-owned sports franchise of any kind. Oaklawn has been around since 1904.

The other thing Oaklawn has going for it is hard-nosed pluck and persistence. Over the last century, this stellar racetrack has endured economic depressions, wars and jealous competitors. It has been closed down more than once by opponents to gambling, but Oaklawn always finds a way to resurrect itself and wind up back in the winner’s circle.

It consistently attracts the most famous names in thoroughbred racing, from the 1914 Kentucky Derby winner Old Rosebud to Afleet Alex, who captured last year’s Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

While owners flock to Hot Springs for the Cella family’s large purses, trainers come for the facilities, as Oaklawn has a reputation for having one of the best-maintained tracks in the country, as well as the low cost of Arkansas living. John Servis, Smarty’s trainer, moved his family and training operation to Hot Springs soon after the 2004 season.

Hot Springs: the city

So why would anybody bet on the most remote town in the country with a thoroughbred racetrack? Well, for starters, it’s gorgeous. Hot Springs has four crystal-clear lakes, a national park that was actually preserved by the federal government a good 32 years before Yellowstone, a historic downtown, 47 thermal springs and mountains. There’s hiking and fishing, fine dining, art galleries, film festivals and everything else visitors expect from a tourist town. In fact, the only noticeable difference between Hot Springs and Chicago, where Arlington Park is located, is lower prices and twice the Southern hospitality.

Of course, it’s a sobering fact of life that not every $2 bet is going to bring down a $200 booty. But who really cares when you can soak away your woes in thermal spring baths? Although nobody claims the springs heal arthritis or rheumatism anymore, an hour-long soak in any one of the historic baths will remove the sting of a good bet gone bad.

And here’s a little-known packing secret. Take an abundant supply of thermoses and water jugs. Unlike most national parks that ticket you for so much as picking up a leaf, Hot Springs National Park invites visitors to take home as much spring water as they can haul. For free.

Best culinary bargain

Oaklawn’s corned beef sandwiches are an odds-on favorite. Fans swear chef Jimmy Johnson’s hand-carved corned beef sandwiches are the best sandwiches in the world. Go on opening weekend and the signature sandwiches sell for a mere 50 cents.

What to wear to the track

You know all those fancy hats that people wear to Churchill Downs? Not here. At Oaklawn, dress is nothing if not casual. Be prepared for cold weather in January and February, with average high temps in the 40s, and lows dipping into single digits. And April can be rainy.

Where to go when you win big
at the track

My money’s on the Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa, 239 Central Ave. The Arlington unabashedly flaunts its glory days with a flamboyant lobby bar, a third-floor bathhouse, a veranda with a front row seat to historic Bathhouse Row and a wide bricked walkway known as the Grand Promenade. If it was good enough for Al Capone and his entourage, who occupied the entire fourth floor at the Arlington, it’s good enough for me.

Best breakfast spot to overhear betting tips

The Pancake Shop, 216 Central Ave. It’s sometimes hard to get in, but if you keep your ears peeled, you’ll likely hear educated opinions from locals who study “The Daily Racing Form” like a valedictorian studies textbooks. Hours are Monday–Friday, 6 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.

Or scout your own horse during the 6 a.m. workouts and save $1–$10 for a tip sheet.

Horses to watch

According to an Oaklawn insider, it’s a pretty good bet that Afleet Alex will be back this year, as will Greater Good and Rockport Harbor, John Servis’ new horse. A three-year-old to keep your eye on is Kid Lemonade.

Trivia you can wow your friends with

Bat Masterson liked Hot Springs so much that when parts of it were destroyed by fire in 1905, he raised money to help victims. Bill Clinton graduated from Hot Springs High in 1964.

Over the years, Oaklawn has attracted its share of famous (and infamous) spectators including Shirley Maclaine, Rudolph Valentino, Tony Bennett (he first sang his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” at Hot Springs’ Black Orchid Club), Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lucky Luciano and, of course, Al Capone who kept Suite 443 year-round at the tony Arlington Hotel.

Hot Springs and Oaklawn combine for an exciting pre-spring escape. And that’s a bet you can take to the bank.

Pam Grout is a contributor from Lawrence, Kan.

Above: The thundering of hooves at the track. Arkansas Parks and Tourism photos

Below: Stay at the storied Arlington Hotel while visiting Hot Springs. Arkansas Parks and Tourism photo

Before You Go
For more information about Oaklawn, call 1-800-OAKLAWN (800-625-5296) or check out their Web site at www.oak lawn.com. Hot Springs Convention and Tourism Bureau can be reached at 1-800-SPACITY (800-772-2489) or at their Web site www.hotsprings.org.

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks and TourBook guides. View a list of offices.

Order free information through the Reader Service Card online. Click on Reader Resources.

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