Gary West.

West: More is More as Expanded Oaklawn Meet Gets Underway

By Gary West/Special to TVG

Friday, Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., begins its 66-day season with a featured race for 2-year-olds, the $150,000 Advent Stakes. Now, there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. 

A 66-day Oaklawn season? Starting in December? A stakes for 2-year-olds? Charles Cella, the former Oaklawn owner and president who died in 2017, wouldn’t recognize the place — the flashy and flashing ding-a-ling casino complete with sports betting, the luxurious trackside hotel and spa — or the calendar. As for Louis Cella, Oaklawn’s founder whose namesake is the current owner and president, he’d probably think he woke up in an H.G. Wells novel.

Compared to this modern version, the old Oaklawn Park sounds like a place featured in a bedtime story. Once upon a time, there was a racetrack in the Hot Springs National Park that opened in January and offered the best racing in the region and some of the best in the nation right through the day of the Arkansas Derby (G1) in April, exactly two weeks, but then three weeks, before the Kentucky Derby (G1). Because the racing seasons were so brief, 30 days back in the 1950s, and the racing so good, the atmosphere there was incomparably festive, and nobody talked about anything for miles around except horse racing. You couldn’t have breakfast at a local diner without getting into a discussion about the Daily Double. Throughout the 1980s, daily attendance averaged more than 20,000; people would line up for blocks to buy tickets to reserved seats in the grandstand. Every day was like the opening of a new Spider Man movie. Average daily attendance peaked in 1983 at 23,272, or nearly 3,000 more fans than attended Del Mar recently on Breeders’ Cup Friday. In 2013 at Oaklawn, more than 66,000 turned out for the Arkansas Derby, or nearly 20,000 more than attended the two recent Breeders’ Cup days at Del Mar.

Louis Cella wants to bring back that festive atmosphere and even improve on it and expand it, to 66 days, from Friday through May 8. And in doing so, as almost anybody in his position would, Cella is playing by big-kid rules, which are that the biggest kid in the game makes the rules. And with its $700,000-a-day purses, Oaklawn Park is the biggest kid in the region, one of the biggest in the nation. By the new big-kid rules, the $1,250,000 Arkansas Derby will be run this year on April 2, five weeks before the Kentucky Derby and the same day as the Florida Derby (G1). Oaklawn’s other stakes for 3-year-old — the Smarty Jones, Southwest (G3), and Rebel (G2) — move accordingly — as do the stakes for 3-year-old fillies. But with changes come questions. How will all these changes impact racing in the region and indeed racing generally?

Hot Springs, much like Saratoga Springs, has a colorful history. Babe Ruth came here for the medicinal waters, as did Jack Dempsey. The Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Red Sox trained in Hot Springs. But the waters weren’t the only attraction. As far back as 1870, gambling was wide-open here, explains David Hill in his excellent book The Vapors, where he describes Hot Springs as “America’s forgotten capital of vice.” The federal government once operated eight bathhouses in the city, and right across Central Avenue from these bathhouses were several gambling emporiums. Oilmen from Texas, gangsters from Chicago, tycoons from Wall Street, and celebrities from everywhere all converged on little Hot Springs, Ark. 

Racing at Oaklawn Park. Coady Photography.

When Oaklawn reopened in 1934 — it had been shuttered by state law in 1907 — horse racing and gambling were still illegal in Arkansas. But that apparently didn’t seem to matter in Hot Springs, where the laws against gambling were regarded as mere recommendations. And when a local preacher called on the governor to do something about these blatant scofflaws, the folks of Hot Springs suggested the reverend leave town. Having to choose between a racehorse and a preacher apparently wasn’t much of a choice. The largest crowd ever to watch a sporting event in Arkansas at the time, according to Hill, came out to watch horses race illegally. The point is this: The people in Hot Springs love racing.

And there will be much to love over the next few months, starting with the Advent Stakes. The 5-2 morning-line favorite is Cairama, who won his debut at Belmont Park and then finished fifth in the one-mile Nashua Stakes (G3). He’ll turn back to three-quarters of a mile.

But from here, Higher Standard, 3-1 in the morning line, looks like the one to beat. He’s as quick as a reflex. When the diminutive colt won his debut, he shot out of the gate and moved clear before running a sixteenth of a mile, but then he relaxed and allowed the even-money favorite to assume the lead. At the top of the Churchill Downs lane, after running the opening half-mile in the mud in :45.81, Higher Standard put away his rival and then, after switching strides in mid-stretch, drew clear to win by nearly six lengths.

“He’s a little missile,” his trainer, Tom Amoss, said about the son of Into Mischief. “He prepared really well going into his debut, but when a horse makes his first start you always worry whether he’ll remember the lessons he has learned; so when he broke the way he did, we were confident.”

Higher Standard shipped directly to Oaklawn from Churchill, arriving Wednesday, Amoss said. The missile came out of his debut with energy and willingness, and so Amoss said he’s not overly concerned about the relatively quick turnaround of less than three weeks. Nor is he worried about the outside post position, No. 10. It could be ideal for a colt with Higher Standard’s early speed.

A “little missile” could provide the appropriate start to Oaklawn’s season.

Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.