Archive for the ‘Thoroughbred racing’ Category

Wide-open days in the Spa City

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

It has been fun writing about the colorful characters who loved to hang out in Hot Springs.

One of the most colorful was Rodney Fertel of New Orleans, who became known as the Gorilla Man after running unsuccessfully for mayor of the Crescent City on the promise that he would buy a pair of gorillas for the Audubon Zoo.

Rodney’s wife from 1947-58 was Ruth Fertel, the founder of the Ruth’s Chris chain of steakhouses.

Their son, Randy Fertel, wrote a book about his parents titled “The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak.” It features a photo of Rodney and Ruth walking down Central Avenue in Hot Springs in 1948.

Here’s part of what Randy Fertel wrote in the book (published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2011), which I would highly recommend you read: “If we could return to the moment captured in a 1948 photo, this couple, Mom and Dad, Ruth and Rodney, might catch our eye as they stride down Central Avenue in Hot Springs. In full sunlight, Ruth holds the crook of Rodney’s right arm and gazes at the camera with self-assurance and an easy smile. While women behind her clutch their bags tight, she carries a handbag by its strap. She wears heels with bows.

“That sunny day in Hot Springs, an unseen ornate gold barrette tooled in her initials — RUF — holds her hair swept back from her high brow. The barrette is a gift from her husband, whose family is in the trade — pawnshops.

“His face in shadow and wearing sunglasses, not unaware of the camera himself, her husband gazes at her with fondness and regard. Rodney sports a tie with bold ovals, and in his right hand he carries a folded paper, probably the Daily Racing Form. He wears his shirtsleeves rolled. His left arm swings forward with a watch on his wrist, the first of many gold Rolexes, and a cigarette in the tips of his fingers — he has yet to give them up. One can almost see the ‘insouciant challenge of his loping walk,’ as Terry Teachout, Louis Armstrong’s recent biographer, paints it. Dad shared with Pops the same neighborhood, New Orleans’ South Rampart Street.

“It is three years since the end of the Second World War in which Rodney Fertel (ne Weinberg) did not serve (4-F for reasons that have always been obscure). It’s two years since Ruth Fertel (nee Udstad) graduated from Louisiana State University with honors in physics and chemistry. She is 21, he is 27. In less than a year, their firstborn son, Jerry, will enter the world. In two years, I will arrive.

“They come from a watery world and they’ve found another here. In the hills to their left and right are Hot Springs Mountain and West Mountain where 47 underground springs spew a million gallons of water a day, no matter the weather. Carbon dating shows that 4,000 years ago the water fell as rain upon the Ouachita forest of central Arkansas. Since then it has seeped slowly down through the earth’s crust until, superheated by the earth’s core, it gushes rapidly to the surface, a constant 143 degrees Fahrenheit. Mountain Valley Water, Rodney’s lifelong favorite brand, was founded nearby. Since the dawn of time, spring floods have coursed south, building with alluvial ooze the deep Mississippi Delta where Ruth was born.”

There’s something about Hot Springs that inspires good writing like this.

In the spring of 1962, Robert H. Boyle would write in Sports Illustrated: “Everything considered, there isn’t anything in the world like Hot Springs — or the people in it. This is not to say the town couldn’t be improved. Part of it could use a couple of coats of paint; there are junky signs and assorted clutter disfiguring some of the land around Lake Hamilton; and a local restaurant may mar a good meal by serving the Chianti ice cold. But perhaps it would be better not to tamper with Hot Springs.”

It once was common for photographers to take photos of those walking up and down Central Avenue and then sell the photos. You’ve probably seen those black-and-white shots of people strolling the avenue. In the background of many of the photographs is the neon sign for a restaurant named Hammons.

Randy Fertel writes: “Hammons, no apostrophe. Sea Food, two words. Inside a sign promises ‘One Day Out of the Ocean,’ meaning one day up from the Louisiana bayous where Ruth was born. Rodney prefers Hammons to the Arlington’s grand dining room with its organ and white-gloved black waiters and where, at age 13, I develop a taste for watercress salad and cornbread sticks slathered in butter and honey.

“Rodney has not yet developed his taste for political clowning. His Gorilla Man campaign for New Orleans mayor, with its catchy slogan — ‘Don’t vote for a monkey. Elect Fertel and get a Gorilla’ — lies 20 years in the future.

“Ruth has not yet read the classified ad that will, in 1965, lead her to borrow $22,000 to purchase a little steakhouse with 17 tables near the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. My parents were married just a few years, from 1947 to 1958. They each had a certain glamour.”

They were in the right place in 1948 for people with glamour. As they like to say in Hot Springs, it was Vegas before there was a Vegas.

When the photo was taken, the 20-year reign of Leo Patrick McLaughlin as Hot Springs’ mayor had just come to an end. Sid McMath was leading the GI revolt against the McLaughlin machine. McMath had been elected prosecuting attorney (and would be elected governor in 1948), and a grand jury began an investigation into the McLaughlin administration in March 1947. McLaughlin announced he would not run again. He was indicted on numerous charges but never convicted.

Wendy Richter, the archivist at Ouachita Baptist University, writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “McLaughlin ran for mayor in 1926 on a platform that promised Hot Springs would be an open town. He also pledged to improve city streets. McLaughlin delivered on his campaign promises. He directed work that paved miles of streets and, most notably, he allowed illegal gambling. McLaughlin also orchestrated the Arkansas Legislature’s approval of the reopening of Oaklawn Park in 1934 after a 15-year hiatus.

“During McLaughlin’s two decades as mayor from 1927-47, only one person ran against him. Prior to each election during his administration, city employees would be given a ‘pink slip’ to share with friends and family, naming the candidates favored by the McLaughlin machine. Therefore, candidates appearing on the slip were assured support even though the names of many of the people who voted for them could be found only in cemeteries. McLaughlin’s ability to deliver votes made him a powerhouse in state politics. All he asked was that Hot Springs be left alone to operate as an open town.

“McLaughlin was a showman. He drew attention from tourists and locals alike when he rode daily down Central Avenue in a sulky pulled by his horses, Scotch and Soda, while wearing a riding costume with a red carnation in his lapel. This showmanship surfaced in his political speeches as well; he often shed his coat and rolled up his sleeves as a speech intensified.

“Underworld characters frequented Hot Springs during the McLaughlin administration. Men such as Al Capone, Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Frank Costello visited the spa town with the understanding that they would exhibit only their best behavior. The nation’s gangsters utilized Hot Springs as a sanctuary or retreat; McLaughlin and his associates welcomed them as long as they did not bother the locals and left their criminal activities behind.

“Local businessmen managed the town’s gambling operations under the watchful eyes of McLaughlin and his associates. The owners and managers appeared regularly in municipal court and helped finance city government by paying fines considered to be license fees for their operations. This income spurred the development of Hot Springs, which reached its peak as a health resort during his tenure as mayor. The spa’s bathing industry hit its zenith in the mid-1940s when visitors enjoyed more than a million baths annually.”

Randy Fertel describes the Spa City this way in his book: “In this year, 1948, Hot Springs is a wide-open town, dominated by the Southern Club, a gambling house in operation since 1893. In Las Vegas, Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel is only two years old and the Strip still but a dream. The mineral baths and the gambling tables draw Rodney and Ruth here from their home in New Orleans for long stays. Rodney enjoys independent means inherited from his pawnbroker grandparents; no job pulls him home.

“The horses bring them, too. In 1948, the Fair Grounds in New Orleans celebrates its Diamond Jubilee, 75 years of continuous thoroughbred racing. Hot Springs’ Oaklawn Park is almost as old. This very summer, Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, Huey’s brother and an inveterate gambler, comes to Hot Springs ‘for his arthritis.’ Gov. Long begins his day with the Daily Racing Form and the tout sheets. He helped the mob install slots throughout Louisiana; they let him know when the fix is in. Ruth and Rodney Fertel share Gov. Long’s taste for racehorses. In a few years, Ruth will earn her thoroughbred trainer’s license.”

Randy Fertel writes about Owney Madden, a man he describes as “a gangster from Liverpool by way of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. Owney Madden, or ‘Owney the Killer’ as he was called, had turned the Cotton Club in Harlem into a success before going upriver to spend seven years in Sing Sing — which didn’t prevent owning a casino in unregulated Hot Springs. To Mae West, fellow denizen of Hell’s Kitchen whose career he bankrolled and whom he dated, Madden was ‘sweet but oh so vicious.'”

Fertel writes that Hot Springs was “favored by gangsters both Jewish and Italian: Louis Lepke, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Joy Adonis, Frank Costello. Luciano fled the Waldorf-Astoria for Hot Springs in 1936 when Tom Dewey, district attorney of New York City and future governor of New York, indicted him for prostitution. It took 20 Arkansas Rangers to surround and take Luciano. … Still in the honeymoon glow, Rodney this time splurges on a room at the Arlington Hotel, looming beyond the camera’s sight at the head of Central Avenue. Al Capone at one time kept a fourth-floor corner suite overlooking the Southern Club, his favorite, just across the street. He played at a raised poker table in order to command a clear view of the entire room. When Capone strode down Bathhouse Row, his goons surrounded him, two in front, two behind, and one on either side.”

Rodney’s grandparents in New Orleans purchased a vacation home at 359 Whittington Avenue in Hot Springs, and Rodney later would live here. Old-timers at the Hot Springs Country Club still tell stories about the Gorilla Man.

Randy Fertel writes of that house on Whittington: “There, I will first hear a woodpecker and there, 30 years later, Telemachus-like but only half-wanting reconciliation, I will seek my father and find the door ajar, the house empty, filled only with the rainwater that falls through the hole in the roof and the floor beneath it.”

Casino gambling was still going strong in Hot Springs in March 1964 when The New York Times published a story by Wallace Turner headlined “Hot Springs: Gamblers’ Haven.”

Turner wrote: “The gamblers of Hot Springs are locked in a struggle with the federal government to maintain their control of the biggest illegal gambling operation in the United States. The enterprises flourish with the support of the 30,000 residents of Hot Springs. Gambling has been a major feature of life here since Civil War times. The gambling places are wide open. They are on the pattern developed in the legal casinos operated in Nevada. The conduct of gambling is defined by Arkansas statute as a felony, punishable by up to three years in the state penitentiary. But no gambling.

“The state liquor laws also are ignored in Hot Springs. Last month the investigations by federal agents were stepped up, and top officials of the Department of Justice have announced that they intend to push still harder. … Local officials and the gamblers themselves in Hot Springs insist that there is no connection with national underworld syndicates.”

John Ermey, the Hot Springs police chief, told the newspaper: “The day anybody brings me any reliable information that the Mafia or any out-of-state people are involved in Hot Springs is the day I’ll get on the radio and television and in the press and take the battle to the public to attempt to bring about a complete reform. If there ever was any, I don’t know of it. The fellows who run the two big clubs were born and raised here.”

The Times reported: “There are two main gambling combines. The names of members of each group are well known to the officials who have control of law enforcement here. By Nevada standards, the operation is small. One Las Vegas Strip casino will win several times as much in a year as the total winnings of the three major casinos operated here. Estimates of winnings here are difficult to get. But they must be sizable. One place pays up to $10,000 a week for the supper club entertainment that it furnishes in a frank imitation of the Nevada casinos. Last week, Mickey Rooney was a main attraction. Gambling provides about 500 jobs in Hot Springs.”

It was noted in the story that Ermey, a Hot Springs native, lived next to Madden for years. Madden was 72 at the time the story was published.

“Madden for many years provided an argument for observers that gambling activities here had roots in other states,” Turner wrote. “Madden came here on his release from Sing Sing in 1933, married an Arkansas girl, had an interest in all bookmaking carried on here, then control of a race-wire service, visited with his friends when they came through either for the baths or to hide out and owned part of one of the casinos. Now he lives more or less in retirement, visiting almost daily with friends in the Southern Club.”

Turner reported that federal agents had tried 18 months earlier to shut down the Southern Club, but a federal grand jury refused to indict the owners.

“Since then the gambling operators have tried to stay out of interstate commerce,” Turner wrote. “They are at ease with local and state law enforcement. But they are frightened of the federal authorities. Their advertising never mentions gambling, although they buy radio spots to promote their supper club shows. The greater part of their business comes from outside Arkansas. The business people here are convinced that if the gamblers were put out of business, the community would suffer. They believe that Hot Springs’ economic health is dependent on the continuance of gambling. … The bathhouse business has declined because of changes in medical practice. This slack has been taken up by persons who come here to gamble. They also come here to drink for Arkansas has a liquor law that forbids the sale of mixed drinks. No one pays any attention to it in Hot Springs.”

The story pointed out that the city had a tax on gambling and liquor operations even though they were technically illegal.

“Places that serve mixed drinks pay $100 a month license fees to the city,” Turner wrote. “This goes up to $150 next year. Some other current fees include slot machines, $10 a month each; bingo, $100 a month; bookmakers, $200 a month; businesses that specialize in distributing results of races and sports events, $50 a month. The ordinance describes ‘places where craps, blackjack, roulette, chuck-a-luck, poker, rummy or other games of chance’ are played. This year places with more than five tables are taxed $500 a month and smaller places $300.”

The Times described downtown this way: “The venerable Arlington Hotel, an underworld meeting spot for many years, sits at the end of Bathhouse Row. Across the street is the Southern Club. A great building activity goes on here. About 1,000 new motel and hotel rooms are just finished, under construction or planned. Up the street, The Vapors draws the nightly gambling crowd, and first-class rooms are hard to get now that the racing season is open. Many of the 2 million visitors attracted to Hot Springs each year come during the seven weeks of racing. … The leading gambler in Hot Springs is Dane Harris, a tall and husky man of 46 years who exudes confidence and competence.”

Harris told the newspaper: “Public opinion in Hot Springs is for this. This business of gambling in Hot Springs is so old and so ingrained in the public’s mind that it isn’t looked on as a degrading business. … As far as the local people are concerned, someone is going to run the gambling, and it can be us as long as we run it right. If we don’t, we’re going out.”

Turner concluded his story this way: “So the gamblers have the public officials at bay, except those from the federal government. The gamblers calculate that they can beat federal intervention by staying out of interstate commerce.”

That all changed in November 1966 when Arkansas voters made Winthrop Rockefeller the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Already one of the country’s richest men, Rockefeller didn’t need payoffs from the gambling interests in Hot Springs. He began shutting down gambling soon after taking office in 1967. It was the end of an era for Hot Springs.

Post to Twitter

The hottest spring

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

A friend who was well aware of my love of Hot Springs and the characters who have called it home through the years sent me a copy of an article that ran in the March 19, 1962, issue of Sports Illustrated.

The story was written by Robert H. Boyle, who lived on the banks of the Hudson River in New York and often wrote about fishing.

Sports Illustrated had published its first issue in August 1954 and become known for quality writing. The cover of the 1962 issue containing the Hot Springs story featured the UCLA basketball team, and the cover price was 25 cents.

The headline read: “The hottest spring in Hot Springs: That’s the forecast for this jumping Arkansas town where gambling is wide open, the track is fast and the fishing is fine.”

Spring remains prime time for tourism in the Spa City — Oaklawn Park is holding its annual Racing Festival of the South next week — but in 1962 the gambling machines were spread across the city rather than being confined to Oaklawn as is now the case.

Boyle wrote of men with nicknames such as Bones Martin, The Dreamer and Amarillo Slim.

“Atlantic City Red, the pool hustler, was there, though he kept denying his identity,” Boyle wrote. “‘You’re the 20th guy who’s confused me with him,’ he said, feigning innocence. His confrere, Daddy Warbucks, was expected there any minute. Tiny, the ‘heavyman,’ or bouncer, at The Vapors, was there, and the Round Man was out shooting at the golf course. Tommy Freeman, ex-welterweight champion of the world, was there, and so was a little geezer of 94, Cap’n Joe Piggott, who said he had been Teddy Roosevelt’s bodyguard. Col. Reed Landis, son of the late Judge Landis, the baseball commissioner, was there, and so was Lon Warneke, who won 192 games for the Cardinals and Cubs. Texas millionaires were there, along with some moonshiners from the Possum Kingdom in the hills nearby. Chicago cloak-and-suiters were there, to say nothing of arthritics from St. Joe, Mo.

“These and many more piled into the little city of 36,000 that snuggles in a valley of the Ouachita Mountains. The most unusual spa in the United States, Hot Springs is also, pound for pound, the greatest sporting town anywhere. Last week marked the middle of the town’s traditional spring season, and by all odds this one shapes up as the hottest in history — unless the FBI interferes. The FBI, you see, was also there. The only people who were leaving were the carnival folk who winter in town; they were outward bound for the Seattle World’s Fair and other midways near and far.

“Hot Springs, sometimes celebrated as the Paris of the Bible Belt, attracts characters and crowds galore because it has something for almost everyone. ‘Free Beer Tomorrow’ flashes a neon sign over one saloon. At times it seems as though the town was dreamed up in a collaboration of W.C. Fields and the Mayo brothers. Besides legal betting on the horses at Oaklawn Park, there’s illegal gambling — craps, roulette, chuck-a-luck, bingo, blackjack, slots, you name it — at the lavish casinos. There’s bathing in the radioactive waters from the hot springs at the Quapaw and other bathhouses along the Row on Central Avenue, bow-and-arrow shooting at Crystal Springs, where the National Archery Association holds its annual championship, superb fishing in the nearby countryside, sailing and skin-diving at lakes Hamilton, Catherine and Ouachita, championship cock fighting not too far away, coon hunting in the mountains and good jazz in the Skyline Lounge, where John Puckett plays the piano, and the Black Orchid, where Charles Porter, piano, and Reggie Cravens, bass, hold forth until 5 a.m.”

Puckett played the piano for diners in the Venetian Room of the Arlington Hotel until shortly before his death in January.

The Reggie Cravens Combo played in the Arlington lobby on a regular basis in later years.

“Hot Springs has lured people since time began,” Boyle wrote in 1962. “Warring Indian tribes used to gather there in holy truce to partake of the waters bubbling from the earth. Legend has it that Ponce de Leon was really looking for these springs when he was chasing after the Fountain of Youth. In 1832, the U.S. Congress recognized the therapeutic value of the water by setting aside four square miles with the 47 springs as a federal preserve. As far as anyone knows, the water has always flowed steadily from its unknown underground source at a rate of almost a million gallons a day, with an average temperature of 143 degrees.

“‘An unutterable, unspeakable, awesome miracle,’ intones Nate Schoenfeld, a local lawyer and bath booster, braced at attention, hat over heart.

“A National Park Service plant cools the water to body temperature and pipes it into the bathhouses, where private concessionaires, operating under strict lease from the government, serve it up to customers by the tubful. The water not only has a favorable effect on arthritis, bursitis and rheumatism, but it’s also most relaxing for the visitor un-afflicted with anything save a hangover or the tensions of modern life. The peak of bliss comes when the attendant pulls the plug after your daily 15-minute soaking. As the water surges down the drain, you are plastered to the sides of the tub like a wet leaf on a curbstone.

“The reputation of the spa built the town of Hot Springs. It was one of the first spring training sites for baseball teams. As early as 1886, the Chicago White Stockings repaired there to ‘boil out the alcoholic microbes’ picked up from winter ‘lushing.’ Boxers came down by droves, from John L. Sullivan and Battling Nelson to Harry Greb and Jersey Joe Walcott.

“In the 1930s and ’40s, Hot Springs was notorious as a sanctuary for gangsters on the lam. Pretty Boy Floyd stayed a spell, and so did the Alvin Karpis gang. They had the freedom of the city; indeed, a phone call from the mayor’s office is reputed to have triggered the Kansas City massacre. The mayor was Leo Patrick McLaughlin, an evil rogue who refused to let the kids in town have a playground. He preferred that they continue to loiter in pool halls. Known as Dixie’s Jimmy Walker, Leo always sported a fresh carnation in his lapel, wore his hat brim up in front and down in back and paraded around town in a carriage drawn by two hackney ponies named Scotch and Soda. His only advice to the gangsters was, ‘Check your irons at the state line.’

“McLaughlin met his downfall in 1946 when a group of GIs, led by Sid McMath, an ex-Marine officer who later became governor of the state, and Nate Schoenfeld, a onetime Syracuse halfback and Harvard Law School graduate, rallied an independent party that defeated the crooked machine. The GIs were reformers but not bluenoses. They closed down the gambling, purging it of Leo’s cronies, but after McMath became governor, it opened up again. The people wanted it that way.”

I grew up 35 miles from Hot Springs. It was my “big city” during the 1960s and 1970s when I was a boy, a seemingly exotic place filled with exotic people. There were the auction houses on Central Avenue, the ethnic restaurants and the places intended for adults only. I was a newspaper junkie (I still am) and was amazed that one could buy a copy of that day’s Chicago Tribune in the Arlington lobby. Large numbers of people from the Chicago area still vacationed in Hot Springs back then.

A half century ago, Winthrop Rockefeller, the state’s new governor, began shutting down the illegal gambling operations. Downtown Hot Springs fell into an era of decline that only recently has begun to abate. But in 1962, downtown was hopping.

Schoenfeld told Boyle: “The best way to govern is to do a hell of a lot of leavin’ alone. The people are the ultimate repository of what the good God has put in them. The gambling is home-owned and operated. There’s no hoodlum element, no oppression, no scum. No one forces himself on anyone else. There is no guy around here with greasy hair and a Mafia smile. The people are capable, clean, decent, friendly. This place reflects the quality, character and charm of all of us. This place has got roots. It’s 24 hours of happiness.”

The three big casinos were the Southern Club, the Belvedere and The Vapors.

Boyle wrote: “All have nightclubs. Jan Garber and his orchestra play regularly for dancing at the Belvedere throughout the season. In addition, there are about half a dozen smaller gambling places. … All the gambling houses in the city pay a local tax, $500 a month for what the law defines simply as ‘a large place’ and $200 a month for ‘a small place.’ When the city fathers passed this law in 1958, they noted, ‘It is not the intention of the City Council to legalize any of the operations, but if same are conducted, taxes shall be paid.’ The tax money goes into the Hot Springs Municipal Auditorium and Civic Improvement Fund, and this year the city clerk expects to collect $80,000. A few years ago the town, led by the local state senator with the wondrous name of Q. Byrum Hurst, tried to get the Legislature to legalize the gambling, but a handful of rural representatives helped beat the bill. By custom and tradition, the governor of Arkansas keeps hands off Hot Springs. The state needs the tourists for its economy.

“A spokesman for the gamblers is Dane Harris, 43, president and general manager of The Vapors, a partner in the Belvedere and an enthusiastic member of the Chamber of Commerce. A boyish-looking six-footer with a crew cut, Harris could pass for a young college professor. ‘Of course this town’s illegal,’ he says, with candor. ‘But it’s been running open for years. People expect it and want it. This is strictly a local operation, has not been anything else and will not be anything else. This is a different type of element. Check the police records for the lack of prostitution and narcotics. Probably our own interest in gambling is more of an interest in it as business than gambling for its own sake. It looked like probably one of the few things that could be big enough to build the town on.’

“The Vapors, which books such acts as Les Paul and Mary Ford, the Andrews Sisters and Jane Russell, has 200 employees, and Harris hesitates to think about what would happen to them and the town, and his partners and himself, if the FBI brought a case against the casinos. ‘We’re fixin’ to build a new auditorium here,’ he says. ‘If there were no funds from the amusement tax, that would not be possible.'”

Boyle described Oaklawn Park this way back in 1962: “Oaklawn itself is a charming little track with a nine-hole golf course in the infield. Golfers played there opening day, but they are usually barred when the races are on for fear a slice will conk a horse. Flanking the old wooden clubhouse are glass-enclosed, steam-heated grandstands. ‘The first in the world,’ says John Cella proudly. Ordinarily Cella is a traditionalist. Instead of using a car to haul the starting gate around, he uses a team of Clydesdales.

“Although Cella has been coming down to Hot Springs for years, he never fails to be delighted by the varieties of life on exhibit in the town. ‘I don’t know of any place like it,’ he says. ‘It has a unique flavor all its own.’ As a case in point, he cites the sermon Father Mac, the assistant pastor at St. John’s, delivered at mass a couple of Sundays ago. From the pulpit, Father Mac said he had been out at the track a few days before and noticed a man who kept staring at him after one race. Finally the man came up to him and said, ‘Father, you cost me $100.’ ‘How could that be?’ asked Father Mac. ‘Well, father,’ the man said, ‘when the horses were parading to the post I saw you blessing the No. 9 horse. I bet him, and he finished last. ‘Son,’ said Father Mac, ‘I wasn’t blessing him — I was giving him the last rites.'”

Boyle also described the country club and the characters who hung out there: “The flavor of the town not only extends to but permeates the Hot Springs Golf and Country Club, where the annual Hot Springs Open is played in May. Only this country club could have a teaching pro like Gib Sellers, a onetime golf hustler known as the Round Man. For years the Round Man hustled with the best, often as a baby-faced kid in partnership with Titanic Thompson, the great con artist. When they traveled through the Midwest together, Thompson liked to set up the suckers for killing by airily pointing toward Sellers, who had only two woods in a dilapidated bag, and say, ‘I’ll just take that kid over there and play you two guys.’

“A Hot Springs native, Sellers practiced hour after hour on the local course, trying to look bad, and he trimmed everyone who came in for a game, even the other hustlers. ‘No hustler ever came in here and went away happy,’ he says with a smile. ‘They all got beat here. There wasn’t a player in the world who could beat me here. I shot that thing anywhere from six to eight under par. My best round was a 62, playing five guys low ball.’

“When not hustling, the Round Man played with the gangsters who used to frequent Hot Springs in battalion strength. ‘They had a truce when they came here,’ he says. ‘They were real gentlemen here.’ The best golfer among them was a gent known as Phil — he used sundry last names — who shot around par. Joe Adonis was in the high 70s, Ralph (Bottles) Capone around 80, Frank Costello between 80 and 82 and Lucky Luciano high man with 95.”

Boyle closed his story by quoting Nate Schoenfeld: “We have bounty. We have many things no one else has. We want to share it with all the world. We invite you.”

Post to Twitter

Runyonesque track characters

Friday, March 31st, 2017

Steven Crist, who retired last year as editor of the Daily Racing Form, is the son of the late film critic Judith Crist. He studied English at Harvard, joined the staff of the undergraduate humor publication the Harvard Lampoon and fell in love with racing the summer following his junior year.

Several years ago in a story in his alma mater’s alumni magazine, Crist talked about how he went with a friend to a dog track near Boston known as Wonderland. He called it a “charming little place with a festive feeling — the animals, lots of people. … I felt right at home the first night.”

Late that summer, Crist discovered thoroughbred racing at Suffolk Downs and spent every day until the fall either at Wonderland or Suffolk.

I love Crist’s explanation of why he spent his career writing about thoroughbreds and the people who inhabit the tracks where they run: “The stats and numbers stuff is there, plus the animals, the gambling and the weird subculture. The racetrack is … well, like people who ran away and joined the circus.”

I think about that racetrack subculture as the Racing Festival of the South approaches at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs.

As a college student, I learned to appreciate thoroughbred racing as much as Crist, though our backgrounds are vastly different. He was raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and attended Harvard. I was raised along the Ouachita River in Arkadelphia and attended Ouachita Baptist University. But each January through April, I had racing at Oaklawn.

I was the sports editor of Arkadelphia’s Daily Siftings Herald during my college years, and that allowed me access to Oaklawn’s press box and the fascinating characters who inhabited it.

The elevator ride to the press box was narrated by Alex Blattner, who grew up in Chicago, spent a career working for Illinois Bell Telephone Co. and then retired to Hot Springs Village. During the race meet, Blattner worked as an elevator operator and gave memorable descriptions of each floor.

In the press box, I was greeted daily by the “hi ya” of Daily Racing Form correspondent Don Grisham, a Hot Springs native who had watched races through a fence as a child. Grisham, who died in 2014 at age 84, joined the Racing Form in the late 1950s and spent almost 35 years there. He never tired of reminding me that he too had been a Daily Siftings Herald sports editor when he was a student at what’s now Henderson State University.

There were other interesting folks in that press box, some of whom just went by their nicknames. There were the Muldoon brothers, the Beer Man and a couple of silent characters whose names I never knew.

I finished college in December 1981 and went to work in the sports department of the Arkansas Democrat.

Jeff Krupsaw, who has long been the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s deputy sports editor, was covering racing in those days. One of my first assignments was to help Krupsaw put together a special tabloid that would run in advance of the race meet. We spent a glorious week driving to Hot Springs prior to daylight each day, conducting interviews during morning workouts and then having big breakfasts at the track kitchen before returning to Little Rock to write.

Just before the 1982 race meet began, Krupsaw accepted a job with the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Wally Hall, who was early in his tenure as Democrat sports editor, called me in and informed me that I would be the newspaper’s chief Oaklawn writer since I had covered the track on an almost daily basis during my college years.

I couldn’t have been happier.

The newspaper war with the Arkansas Gazette had heated up by 1982, and because there was so much space in the Democrat sports section, I was encouraged to produce feature stories on things that interested me around the track. I was, of course, also writing about the races, but I didn’t have the knowledge and contacts that the Gazette’s Randy Moss had. So I also wrote about people such as Blattner the elevator operator, the track’s veteran shoeshine man, the ladies who worked at the oyster bar and more.

No place harbors more colorful characters than a thoroughbred track.

No place.

I was convinced that I had found a job I would hold onto for many years.

Oaklawn is a particularly special place, a family-owned track in an era of corporate ownership.

“Even before the Civil War, the former pasture where Oaklawn now stands in Hot Springs was home to impromptu races between local farm boys riding their fastest ponies,” Michael Hodge writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Today the track is Arkansas’ only thoroughbred horse racing venue and the lone remaining gambling center in a city once known as much for its casinos as for its famous thermal baths. The popularity of Sportsman’s Park, built on the southeastern edge of Hot Springs in the early 1890s, sparked an interest in developing the sport of thoroughbred horse racing in the area. Following the 1903 repeal of anti-gambling laws, Essex Park was built in 1904.

“Charles Dugan, Dan Stuart and John Condon — owners of the Southern Club — decided to build a racetrack on a site closer to downtown. In 1904, they formed the Oaklawn Jockey Club and began construction shortly afterward. The name Oaklawn came from the rural community in which the track would be built, which in turn took its name from what Peter LaPatourel, an early settler to the area, called his home, around which a large stand of ancient oaks stood.

“Oaklawn Park opened on Feb. 15, 1905, and prevailed as the lone remaining horse racing venue by 1907. The original venue reportedly cost $500,000 and could seat 1,500 spectators. It included innovations such as a glass-enclosed grandstand and steam heat, one of the first racetracks in the country with either.”

The Southern Club that was owned by Dugan, Stuart and Condon had its own intriguing history. It was established in 1893 and by the 1930s was known as the place where the visiting gangsters would gamble in the evening. The building, which now houses Josephine Tussaud’s Wax Museum, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

“At the end of the 19th century, Hot Springs experienced tremendous growth as a health resort and spa,” Eric Segovis writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “One of the buildings constructed during this period was the private club of Charles Dugan and Dan Stuart, the Southern Club. As early as 1910, the Southern Club ranked among the Spa City’s most popular gambling houses, along with the Indiana and the Arkansas clubs. The Southern Club catered to a diverse clientele of locals and tourists during Host Springs’ heyday as a health resort and gambling center. Among other notable customers, gangster boss Al Capone frequented the Southern Club during the 1920s and 1930s. He became a frequent poker player at the club and always sat at an elevated table, where he commanded a clear view of the entire room. Even his preferred suite at the Arlington Hotel, No. 442, overlooked the club.

“The building’s ownership changed many times. A new owner usually meant changes for the Southern Club’s appearance. In 1927, William Stokley Jackson purchased the building from the widow of the original owner. He expanded it and encased the front of the building in dark Pittsburgh glass that remains visible. Apart from being decorative, this glass served to help Jacobs conceal the gambling that went on within the club. Jacobs was known as the czar of Hot Springs gambling for many years due to his interest in six clubs in Hot Springs — the Kentucky, Ohio, Ozark, White Front, Southern and Belvedere clubs. In the 1940s, the first floor was extensively renovated as Jacobs added a marble staircase. In the 1950s, the city’s first escalator was installed and has been in continuous operation since that time.”

While business at the Southern Club grew, things weren’t going so well further south down Central Avenue. Oaklawn Park ceased racing following the 1907 meet.

Hodge writes: “Anti-gambling sentiments, driven by former Essex Park owner and former state legislator William McGuigan, rose in the form of a bill titled ‘an act to prevent betting in any manner in this state on any horse race.’ The bill was approved on Feb. 27, 1907, and necessitated the closing of Oaklawn at the end of the 1907 season and for a decade after that. The infield of the track continued to be used for other purposes and was the site of the Arkansas State Fair from 1906-14, including a 1910 fair that was attended by former President Theodore Roosevelt.

“By 1914, Oaklawn was owned by Louis A. Cella and his brother Charles, both of St. Louis. The track has remained in the Cella family since then. In 1915, a bill to legalize horse racing and pari-mutuel betting … had passed both houses of the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. George Washington Hays. The veto was challenged in the courts by local citizens but was eventually affirmed by the Arkansas Supreme Court.

“The aftermath of fires in 1913 caused a downturn in tourism in Hot Springs, fueled by rumors that the city could not accommodate guests as a result of the damage. The persistence of these rumors inspired city leaders to find a way to draw tourists back to the city. In 1916, the Hot Springs Men’s Business League reopened Oaklawn Park by setting a short racing schedule beginning on March 11 under the guise of a nonprofit civic enterprise. Pari-mutuel betting was not allowed, but this did not preclude any unofficial wagering. This 30-day season was a success and led to the reopening of both Oaklawn Park and Essex Park the following year with plans for the two tracks to split a full season. Unfortunately, the newly refurbished Essex Park burned the day after its grand reopening in 1917, thus moving the entire season to Oaklawn and marking the permanent end of racing at Essex.

“Pending litigation and the Men’s Business League sponsorship, along with the banning of pari-mutuel betting, had allowed Oaklawn Park to have races until 1919 when Circuit Judge Scott Wood put forth the opinion that continuing to hold the races was illegal, and the track was again closed. In 1929, another bill made it through both the Arkansas House and Senate, only to be vetoed, this time by Gov. Harvey Parnell.

“Attempts to pass legislation to permit pari-mutuel betting on horse races in 1931 and 1933 failed, but in 1934 a group of prominent Hot Springs citizens and businessmen, including Mayor Leo P. McLaughlin, formed the Business Men’s Racing Association and announced that races would be held in March of that year. The move was inspired by growing interest in the sport of thoroughbred racing and the need to draw more visitors to the city. On March 1, 1934, Oaklawn reopened to a crowd of 8,000 spectators without the consent of the Legislature. Future legal ambiguity was avoided in 1935 with the passage of a bill to permit horse racing with pari-mutuel wagering. This time the bill was signed into law by Gov. Junius Futrell.”

The first Arkansas Derby was held in 1936 with a purse of $5,000.

In 1961, what had been a 30-day season was increased to 43 days.

By the early 1980s, the track was hosting races more than 60 days a year.

A couple of days after I had covered the 1982 Arkansas Derby for the Arkansas Democrat, Wally Hall called me into his office to inform me that the Democrat had lured Randy Moss away from the Gazette. It was the first high-profile Gazette defection of the newspaper war.

Moss and I were born the same year. He grew up in Hot Springs, and I grew up about 35 miles down Arkansas Highway 7, though we didn’t get to know each other until I began covering Oaklawn in college. Moss’ father, Jim, was a pharmacist for 18 years at the downtown Walgreens in Hot Springs before spending 32 years with the Arkansas Department of Health as an investigator. Famed thoroughbred trainer Bob Holthus was a neighbor of the Moss family, and Grisham was a family friend. Holthus would sneak Moss into the track, and by age 13, Moss was helping Grisham make picks for the Gazette.

“That sort of morphed into where I was actually doing the picking for the morning line under Don’s name when I was in the 11th and 12th grade and then in college at the University of Arkansas,” Moss explained in an interview for the Pryor Center’s Arkansas Democrat oral history project. “I kept doing the morning line for the Gazette with Don during that time in college. We had sort of an elaborate system devised. Don’s secretary would call me in the morning for the picks, and they would mail me copies of the Racing Form. I did that for two years in Fayetteville.”

After a semester of pharmacy school in Little Rock, Moss decided he would be bored with the work. He had gotten to know Gazette sports editor Orville Henry, and Henry offered him a job in 1979. Moss dropped out of pharmacy school, much to the chagrin of his father, to write sports for the Gazette. He moved to the Democrat three years later, went to the Dallas Morning News in 1989 and is now a lead analyst for NBC Sports coverage of the Triple Crown, the Breeders’ Cup and other top races.

Damon Runyon, who died in 1946 at age 66, was a well-known newspaperman and writer of short stories. He often wrote about racetrack figures with nicknames like Harry the Horse and Hot Horse Herbie. The term “Runyonesque character” has, in fact, become a part of the American lexicon.

I’ve been fortunate to know some Runyonesque characters at Oaklawn through the years.

May their tribe increase.

Post to Twitter

Spring in the Spa City

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

On the morning of Tuesday, March 15, Hot Springs business leaders gathered at the Embassy Suites Hotel adjacent to the city’s convention center to hear from Mike Preston, the young, highly articulate executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

Preston, who was hired by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and moved to Arkansas from Florida last year, gets it.

He understands that economic development in the information age is no longer about industrial recruitment.

It’s about recruiting people — smart, creative, talented people. They’re people who can live wherever they wish and often choose a city based on things such as the ability to reside in a walkable downtown, the quality of restaurants, the assortment of live entertainment at night, the number of bicycle and hiking trails, etc.

For decades, Hot Springs failed to play to its strengths. I know it has been a theme of this blog for several years, but I’ll say it again: Hot Springs’ business and civic leaders allowed a downtown that should be a national treasure to deteriorate. I watched those beautiful old buildings decline and wanted to cry. It was almost criminal what happened.

Preston told those at the breakfast meeting of the Hot Springs Metro Partnership that cities must play to their strengths and then let the world know when things are going well.

Eric Jackson, the veteran general manager at Oaklawn Park, took that message to heart.

Early on the Sunday morning after Preston’s speech, Jackson looked back on what had been a remarkable previous 10 days for Spa City tourism and sent a sunrise missive to key leaders in the city.

He wrote: “Our community recently wrapped up a series of events that resulted in an overall tourism and hospitality product unlike anything in the South. In a relatively short period of time, Hot Springs hosted the state high school basketball championships, several large conventions, the nationally acclaimed St. Patrick’s Day parade, live entertainment ranging from bagpipes to the blues, group tours and the Rebel Stakes day at Oaklawn, which essentially has become like a second Arkansas Derby day. Good luck trying to get a hotel room or a restaurant reservation. You couldn’t turn around downtown or at Oaklawn without running into celebrities or top names in industry and government.”

An estimated crowd of 35,000 people showed up on Saturday, March 19, to watch the Rebel, the race that began drawing the nation’s attention last year to eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

This year’s Rebel came just two days after a throng that some people estimated to be near 30,000 packed downtown Hot Springs for the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade on Bridge Street. This was the 13th year for the parade, a creation of the multitalented Steve Arrison, who heads the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau. The parade has garnered national media attention for Hot Springs and becomes bigger each year.

During the three days after the parade, more than 50,000 racing fans showed up at Oaklawn. Jackson pointed out that at Oaklawn there were:

— Attractions ranging from petting zoos to live entertainment on the open infield.

— Backstretch tours and the increasingly popular Dawn at Oaklawn program for those wanting to learn more about thoroughbred racing.

— A choice of several dozen concession areas and 10 places to sit down and get something to eat or drink.

— Wagering on live races, imported races, electronic games, poker and Instant Racing.

— Uplinks transmitting Oaklawn’s races by satellite to more than 1,000 locations in North America.

— National media coverage.

— More than $2 million in purses, including the country’s top race for three-year-olds that weekend.

— Four areas featuring live musical entertainment.

— Almost 1,500 horses being trained, fed and groomed.

“On top of all that, you have the Mid-America Science Museum, golf, fishing, restaurants, shopping and everything else in this resort community,” Jackson wrote. “It really was amazing. For about a week, our community was the epicenter for hospitality, tourism, entertainment and sports in the South. And, quite frankly, everyone from the shop owners to our police made it look effortless.”

The previous week, large crowds had migrated to the Hot Springs Convention Center for three days to watch the 14 high school basketball championship games. I attended the Saturday games. When I left the arena to walk over to The Porterhouse for dinner, there was bumper-to-bumper traffic on Central Avenue downtown.

Add the fact that the tulips are in full bloom at Garvan Woodland Gardens on Lake Hamilton, drawing throngs of visitors from multiple states.

Verna Garvan spent more than three decades creating the gardens on family property. Her story is an interesting one. She was born Verna Cook in January 1911 in Groveton, Texas.

“Verna and her sister Dorothy were raised to be proper ladies, but Verna often accompanied her father to work and absorbed his business acumen,” Judy Byrd Brittenum writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1916, her father moved the family to Malvern to manage the Wisconsin & Arkansas Lumber Co., an enterprise producing oak and pine flooring. Malvern Brick & Tile was also purchased by Verna’s father, who later served as a board member of what’s now the Malvern National Bank. His land and business investments were transferred upon his death to his wife and daughters but administered by Verna. At the end of her life, she was purported to have the largest holding of timber rights in Arkansas, as she always retained the mineral and timber rights from company land sales.

“Cook grew up in Malvern but attended Holton-Arms, a prestigious Washington, D.C., girls’ school, for her secondary education. When her father died in an auto accident on Aug. 12, 1934, she was engaged to marry Alonzo Bernard Alexander of Spartanburg, S.C. Her mother and sister wished to take no active role in the family business, and after her marriage on Oct. 1, 1934, she proposed that she and her husband manage the the holdings. They moved to South Carolina.”

She was a long way from the family businesses back in Arkansas, but those businesses survived the Great Depression. The brick company supplied thousands of bricks for the massive Army and Navy Hospital at Hot Springs, for instance. A son who had been born with cystic fibrosis died in 1954 in his teens, and Verna’s first marriage ended in 1956. She moved back to Arkansas and met Patrick Garvan Jr., who was visiting a friend in Hot Springs. Garvan was from a prominent New York family. They were married in June 1960 and were planning to build a home on the 210 acres along Lake Hamilton that now house Garvan Woodland Gardens. Patrick Garvan died in 1975, and the home was never built.

“Disappointed in her personal life, she sought to ensure that her garden would remain viable after her death,” Brittenum writes.

Verna’s father had purchased the 210 acres that became the gardens in order to harvest its hardwood timber for his flooring mill. The land became much more valuable when Harvey Couch of Arkansas Power & Light Co. built Carpenter Dam on the Ouachita River, creating Lake Hamilton. Garvan sold Malvern Brick & Tile to Acme Brick in the 1970s, giving her more time to develop the gardens.

The late Marla Crider wrote: “Gardening became Garvan’s passion. As she continued to develop the grounds after her husband’s death, she decided the garden should be shared with the public. She enlisted the help of longtime Malvern Brick & Tile employee Warren Bankson to assist with her vision of a public facility. Together they constructed infrastructure and planted thousands of native and exotic trees, shrubs and plants. She named her landscaped creation the Twentieth Century Gardens.

“Realizing that she and Bankson were not equipped to create a true botanical garden on the scale she had hoped, Garvan signed a trust agreement with the University of Arkansas on Nov. 11, 1985, committing the School of Architecture and its landscape architecture program to operate Twentieth Century Gardens in perpetuity as a service to the people of Arkansas with the understanding that she would maintain control until her death. As stated in the agreement, her motivation for bequeathing the property to the university was to serve as a tribute to natural preservation in the 20th century.”

Garvan hired famous architect Fay Jones and business partner Maurice Jennings of Fayetteville to design an open-air pavilion, which was under construction when Garvan was diagnosed with cancer. Garvan died on Oct. 1, 1993.

The aforementioned Judy Brittenum, who taught landscape architecture at the University of Arkansas, had been appointed by the school in 1990 to work with Garvan to document all the plants in the gardens. David Knowles, an engineering professor, did a detailed survey of all 210 acres. Bob Byers was hired in 1994 as the garden curator and resident landscape architect. Bankson served as garden superintendent.

In 1996, a Cleveland-based landscape architecture and consulting firm was hired to create a 25-year master plan for the gardens. The plan was completed three years later, and a rock and stream garden known as the Garden of the Pine Wind was constructed in 2000. It later was ranked by the Journal of Japanese Gardening as No. 15 on a list of 300 Japanese–style gardens in North America.

The university changed the name from Twentieth Century Gardens to Garvan Woodland Gardens in 2000. A welcome center was built, and the gardens opened to the public on April 7, 2002.

John Ed and Isabel Burton Anthony later were the major benefactors of the Anthony Chapel, which opened in September 2006. Maurice Jennings and David McKee of Fayetteville designed the chapel and the 57-foot Anthony Family Carillon.

Like the St. Patrick’s Day parade, Garvan Woodland Gardens draws more national publicity with each passing year.

Hot Springs’ revitalization efforts received another boost last year when the Mid-America Science Museum reopened following an extensive renovation. In 2011, the museum was awarded a $7.8 million capital grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. Museum officials spent the next several years working with construction consultants, architects and exhibit developers. The museum had to raise $1.6 million to match the grant. A sizable donation from the Oaklawn Foundation in 2013 allowed the museum to reach its fundraising goal.

The museum closed in August 2014 so renovations could begin and reopened in March 2015.

It was Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in the 1960s who first had the idea of an interactive science museum for Arkansas. Rockefeller hired a well-known museum consultant and sponsored a symposium of state leaders to discuss the idea. Hot Springs was identified as the best place for the project.

After taking office in 1971, Gov. Dale Bumpers supported the effort to build the museum. The Legislature established the Arkansas Museum and Cultural Commission during the 1971 session, and Rockefeller was appointed chairman. Temporary offices were opened in the Medical Arts Building in downtown Hot Springs in 1974.

“Construction began on March 11, 1977, on the 65,000-square-foot facility, built on 21 wooded acres in Mid-America Park, a commercial development that includes what’s now National Park College, the museum, industrial and commercial entities,” Richard Mathias writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The multimillion-dollar facility is divided into two wings, which are connected by a glass-enclosed bridge that spans the outside stream. The museum opened to the public on Jan. 20, 1979.

“Sunday, April 22, 1979, was proclaimed Mid-America Day by the major of Hot Springs as the museum was dedicated by Gov. Bill Clinton in a grand opening ceremony. It also received the Henry Award from the Governor’s Conference on Tourism in 1982, honoring contributions to the state’s tourism industry. In 1981, the Hot Springs City Council appropriated, through the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, one cent of the hospitality sales tax to support the museum after Gov. Frank White abolished the museum commission and the appropriations for its operations.”

In November 2001, the museum became the first Arkansas facility to be designated an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. That was the year that the facility was deeded from the state to the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission. Efforts began in 2004 to become a private, nonprofit entity governed by a board.

Reopened and looking like new, the Mid-America Science Museum now takes its place alongside Oaklawn, Garvan Woodland Gardens, Magic Springs and even Hot Springs National Park as an important Spa City attraction.

So far, it has been a spring to remember in Hot Springs.

Post to Twitter

Oaklawn’s renaissance

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

With Oaklawn Park entering the final days of the 2015 race meeting, I figured it would be a good time to share this story that I wrote originally for Talk Business & Politics magazine:

Eric Jackson, the longtime general manager of Oaklawn Park at Hot Springs, vividly remembers that trip across the Chesapeake Bay more than 17 years ago.

It was February 1998, and it was cold. Jackson and Bobby Geiger, Oaklawn’s director of gaming and wagering, had taken a flight to Baltimore and then gotten on a small boat that was headed to an island in the bay.

“It was dark, it was sleeting and Bobby and I just had on our suits,” Jackson says as he sits in his Oaklawn office on a Monday afternoon. “We were freezing. We also knew we had a lot of work ahead of us.”

They were bound for Parsons Island, which once was described by the Baltimore Sun as a “bucolic, privately owned island covered in corn and sunflowers and with scattered wildlife.”

The 100-acre retreat belonged at the time to Jim Corckran, who along with his brother owned an east Baltimore manufacturer of nails, rivets, nuts, bolts and other fasteners that had been founded in 1865. Corckran had purchased the island from McCormick & Co., the well-known spice manufacturer that had begun doing business in 1889 at Baltimore.

Jackson and Geiger weren’t headed to the island to talk about nuts, bolts or spice. They were there to talk thoroughbred racing and ways to preserve the sport in the face of increased casino competition.

Two years earlier, brothers John and Jim Corckran had teamed up with Ted Mudge, the owner of a Baltimore-based insurance brokerage who was active in the thoroughbred racing industry, to purchase AmTote International Inc. Founded in 1932 as the American Totalisator Co., the firm specialized in the equipment used to control pari-mutuel betting at horse racing and greyhound racing facilities. American Totalisator installed its first mechanical tote system at Chicago’s Arlington Park in 1933.

Besieged by the proliferation of casinos in Oklahoma, Mississippi and Louisiana, Oaklawn’s Jackson had come up with the concept of Instant Racing, an electronic gambling system that allows players to bet on replays of past races. Instant Racing terminals resemble slot machines.

“The 1980s had been great for Oaklawn,” Jackson says. “At the time, we didn’t fully appreciate just how great they were. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we began to face competition from new tracks in Oklahoma and Texas (Remington Park opened at Oklahoma City in 1988 and Sam Houston Race Park opened at Houston in 1994). “We responded by instituting simulcasting, becoming the first track to offer full cards from other tracks. But while we were looking west toward Texas and Oklahoma, the casinos were being built to the east in Mississippi and to the south in Louisiana.”

An initiative that would have allowed some casinos in Arkansas — including one at Oaklawn — was tossed off the ballot just before the November 1994 election. Oaklawn made another run at it in 1996.

“We got sucker punched about a month before the 1996 election,” Jackson says. “We had gone into it with the idea that the companies operating casinos in Mississippi would not oppose us since two casinos would be allowed at Hot Springs in addition to what happened here at Oaklawn. Then they came after us. The ads were brutal, and we got our teeth kicked in. Simulcasting had been Plan A. The casino initiative had been Plan B. Frankly, we didn’t have a Plan C.”

Proposed Amendment 4 in 1996 would have established a state lottery, permitted charitable bingo games and raffles by nonprofit organizations and allowed Hot Springs voters to decide whether to authorize casino gambling at Oaklawn and two other sites in the city. The initiative failed 61-39 percent.

It was then that Jackson began to play around with the idea of Instant Racing.

“I thought that there had to be a way to take past races and put them in a format that people would still enjoy,” Jackson says. “Our advertising agency came up with artwork of what the terminals might look like, and we invited representatives of three companies to come and hear what we had to say. Two of them thought it was a dumb idea. The third person was Ted Mudge of Amtote. He wanted to give it some additional thought.”

That was in 1997.

Mudge’s interest set the stage for the February 1998 trip to Parsons Island.

“It was like a think tank out on that island,” Jackson says. “There were all kinds of people there. We worked for about 36 straight hours. It became known as the Parsons Island Project. You can still find old files around here labeled P.I.P., which stands for Parsons Island Project.”

During the 1999 legislative session, the Arkansas Legislature removed the requirement that simulcast races be shown live, opening the door for Instant Racing. The first test terminals were placed on the floor at Oaklawn and at Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis in January 2000. There were 50 machines at each track. By 2002, the concept was taking off in Arkansas.

“For the longest, Instant Racing was just here in Arkansas,” Jackson says. “We then started to get into other states. Louis Cella has been what I call our Fuller Brush salesman. He has gone all over the country talking about Instant Racing. He’s the reason it’s in other states.”

Louis Cella is the son of Charles Cella, who has been at the track’s helm since 1968.

Charles Cella’s grandfather and great-uncle, also named Charles and Louis Cella, were among the founders of Oaklawn and were investors in racing ventures across the country in the early 20th century.

Charles Cella’s father, John Cella, led Oaklawn into the modern era and was the track’s president for many years until his unexpected death in 1968.

The fourth generation of the Cella family operating Oaklawn — Louis A. and John G. Cella — both serve on the board.

Louis is a 1987 graduate of Washington and Lee University in Virginia and received his law degree from the University of Arkansas in 1990.

John is a 1985 graduate of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and is a thoroughbred owner.

Both men inherited their father’s passion for the Hot Springs track. And both have confidence in Jackson, a Hot Springs native who grew up playing golf on the par-three course that once was on the Oaklawn infield. Jackson graduated from Hendrix College at Conway with degrees in business and economics and has been with Oaklawn since 1978. He was the director of operations from 1978 until he was promoted to general manager in 1987.

Jackson became the general manager following the death of the legendary W.T. “Bish” Bishop, who had taken over in July 1972 from the equally legendary J. Sweeney Grant following Grant’s death. Grant had been the general manager since 1954.

In other words, Oaklawn has had just three general managers in 60 years.

Oaklawn celebrated its centennial year in 2004. A year later, Oaklawn and the Cella family were awarded the Eclipse Award of Merit, the most prestigious award in racing. But no longer was Instant Racing enough to keep up with casinos in Mississippi, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The track needed additional relief from the Legislature and got it when legislators passed an act in 2005 permitting Oaklawn and Southland to install “games of skill” such as electronic blackjack and electronic poker if approved by the city or county. Gov. Mike Huckabee allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

More than 60 percent of West Memphis voters approved the games at Southland. In late 2006, work began on a $40 million Southland expansion that included a new main entrance to the dog track, a 55,000-square-foot gaming room, a 400-seat special events center, a 150-seat nightclub, a 280-seat buffet and additional restaurants. Last year, a $37.4 million expansion at Southland was announced, including dozens of new gaming machines and the addition of Sammy Hagar’s Red Rocker Bar & Grill.

In Hot Springs, meanwhile, a public referendum to allow expanded electronic games at Oaklawn passed by just 89 votes in November 2005. Litigation ensued.

In September 2007, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the law authorizing Oaklawn to add expanded games of skill. On the day after the Arkansas Derby in April 2008, Oaklawn began construction on a 60,000-square-foot, two-level structure to house the electronic games.

Things have taken off from there:

— In August 2012, Oaklawn announced that there would be a record $20 million in purses for the 2013 race meeting. The purses, in turn, attracted a higher quality of horses. When Rebel Stakes runner-up Oxbow won the Preakness Stakes at Baltimore in May 2013, he became the 10th Triple Crown race winner to have come from Oaklawn in 10 years.

— In June 2013, Oaklawn announced plans for an expansion of its gaming area that would increase capacity by another 50 percent. The work began in early August of that year and ended just prior to the start of the 2014 race meet.

— Construction on the additional $20 million expansion resumed the day after the Arkansas Derby last April.

— In November, the new gaming area and Silks Bar & Grill opened.

— By the start of this January’s race meet, a high-limits area and a poker room had also opened.

“We’re going to have purses of $23 million this year,” Jackson says. “We’ve picked ourselves up off the mat. This is just as much fun as it was in the 1980s, but this time we appreciate it more. We realize that we looked into the abyss and survived. When things were at their worst in the 1990s, Charles Cella insisted that we keep the racing quality up until we could find a lifeline. He was, in essence, underwriting the purses.

“These days most tracks are owned by gaming companies. We consider ourselves a racetrack that happens to have gaming. We’re the only one who truly uses the gaming proceeds to vastly improve the quality of racing. Gaming now pays the light bill here, but racing is our passion. It’s in our DNA.”

David Longinotti, Oaklawn’s director of racing, is a Hot Springs native like Jackson. He began covering Oaklawn when he wrote sports for The Sentinel-Record at Hot Springs. He later helped open Remington Park in Oklahoma City before becoming director of media relations at sister track Thistledown in Cleveland in 1991. Longinotti returned to Remington as director of communications in 1994. He later spent more than a decade handling the Oaklawn account for Little Rock advertising agency CJRW and then joined the Oaklawn staff in 2006.

“This is David’s Christmas,” Jackson likes to say of the racing season, which runs from early January until the middle of April.

Oaklawn is now among the top five tracks in the country in average daily purse distribution. Race fields were full early in this year’s meet, and there was a lack of stall space. Jackson laughs when asked about the multiple facility expansions that have occurred in recent years.

“That’s a clear indication of the poor job that management did with projections,” he says. “It would have been much cheaper if we had done it all at once.”

In 2014, Oaklawn and Southland saw combined electronic games of skill wagers of almost $3.53 billion. Oaklawn pulled in $1,359,074.501. Southland had $2,172,451.426.

The totals are expected to be even higher this year.

A bad winter played havoc with Oaklawn’s schedule, but Jackson is philosophical. He says, “There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s an outdoor sport.”

The Hot Springs track continues to gain momentum at a time when a number of other tracks across the country are suffering. The Fair Grounds at New Orleans has cut purses consistently in recent years. Oaklawn, meanwhile, has been increasing its purses for more than a decade.

In an interview last year with The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, thoroughbred owner Maggi Moss of Des Moines, Iowa, said of the Fair Grounds: “Nobody cares, so why would I take the time to care? When I go to Oaklawn, I know people care. You get treated great.”

“I don’t think anyone ever expected to see our purses double in just 10 years thanks to Instant Racing, gaming and good racing,” Longinotti says.

Off-track handle picked up last year when Oaklawn’s races returned to the racing channel TVG after only being shown on competing channel HRTV in 2013. The track also has benefited from a product known as “OaklawnAnywhere,” an advance deposit wagering site that allows Arkansas residents to bet using the Internet.

At age 79, famed trainer D. Wayne Lukas is one who spends his winters and early springs at Hot Springs. The Wisconsin native has won more Triple Crown races than any other trainer with 14 (he has captured the Kentucky Derby four times, the Preakness Stakes six times and the Belmont Stakes four times). Lukas already had become a legend in the quarter horse industry when he made the switch to thoroughbreds in 1978.

He says: “Arkansas has something special going on here. Something happens here that’s now missing at a lot of other tracks. You have real fans here.”

Lukas believes Oaklawn could serve as an example for tracks across the country. That’s because it’s still a place for family outings, a spot where the food and the chance to visit with friends is as much a part of the experience as the betting.

Lukas calls Hot Springs “a national treasure,” a resort town where a day at the races is a social event worth getting dressed up for. He says about the only racing towns that can compare these days are Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Lexington, Ky.

“Racing got soft all over the country,” Lukas says. “We became too confident that people would keep coming to the track. Going to the races is still a part of the culture of this state. There’s a genuine enthusiasm for the game that’s hard to find elsewhere. Look at the average daily attendance at Oaklawn. It’s higher than most of the other tracks.”

Lukas says that he likes the fact that he can walk into a Waffle House for breakfast and have people come over to talk racing. That doesn’t happen in New York, Los Angeles or Miami. Across the American landscape, thoroughbred tracks have become sad, empty places, mere adjuncts to adjoining slot facilities. Oaklawn, though it now has an extensive gaming center, has been able to remain a bit different. The racing still matters.

In a book titled “Crown Jewels of Thoroughbred Racing,” Hot Springs native Randy Moss wrote: “No palm trees line the entrance to this racetrack, and its paddock isn’t one of those botanical gardens that make horseplayers want to fold up their Daily Racing Form and splash on suntan lotion. It doesn’t have a Phipps or a Hancock on its board of directors. Thomas Jefferson never raced there and overalls outnumber neckties by three-to-one in the grandstand. But ask well-traveled horse lovers to recite their favorite racetracks and chances are good that Oaklawn Park will pop up in the conversation. For a little country track in Hot Springs, Ark., on a two-lane road between nowhere and no place, Oaklawn has made quite an impact on the racing world.

“During the track’s rapid rise to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, racing executives from throughout the country and even reporters from Sports Illustrated and The New York Times were dispatched here in hopes of determining what made this unlikely racetrack so special. They usually returned home with a hangover and a stretched-to-the-limit credit card, reporting that they couldn’t figure out the secret formula but sure enjoyed the heck out of the search. But without even knowing it, they knew it. The key to Oaklawn has always been simple. The track is one big party.”

Moss, who now works for NBC Sports, related the story of Cuban-born trainer Laz Barrera, who remarked after a race in Hot Springs that he had never been to Oklahoma. Told that he still hadn’t been to Oklahoma, Barrera replied: “Well, wherever we are, it’s a long way from California.”

With the glory days of the 1980s and the early 1990s over, Randy Moss wrote in 1997: “Although great horses still are flown in for the Racing Festival of the South stakes, the crowds and enthusiasm have dimmed somewhat in recent years. The Clydesdales have been replaced by a tractor, the infield critters and wagon rides are gone, riverboat casinos in Mississippi and Louisiana have taken away many of the celebrants and some fans now stay home for the convenience of watching the track’s races on simulcast screens in Shreveport, Dallas-Fort Worth, Oklahoma City and West Memphis.”

Little did Moss know in 1997 that a new chapter was about to be written at Oaklawn.

The old lady of Central Avenue has received a remarkably successful facelift since those words were written. Along came Instant Racing. Along came the other so-called games of skill. Up went the purses. Horses went on from Oaklawn to win Triple Crown races. And the national media noticed.

For Oaklawn Park at Hot Springs, maybe these are the good ol’ days.

Post to Twitter

The Preakness: A day for old men

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

At 2 a.m. on a Saturday in late March, trainer D. Wayne Lukas pulled out of Hot Springs and began the long drive in the dark to New Orleans, where he would saddle the thoroughbred Titletown Five for the 100th running of the Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds.

One of the owners of Titletown Five is Paul Hornung, the Pro Football Hall of Famer who grew up in Louisville, Ky.

levitra from canadian pharmacy

Hornung won the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame and played on four of Vince Lombardi’s championship teams in Green Bay.

Titletown Five made a bid for the lead at the half-mile pole that day before fading badly in the stretch.

After the race, the 77-year-old Lukas got back in his car and returned to Hot Springs so he could train his horses at Oaklawn Park early the next morning.

It was just another day — another long day — at the office for the man they call The Coach.

The fact that one of the most famous thoroughbred trainers in history makes Arkansas his winter and early spring base speaks volumes about the national prominence Oaklawn now enjoys in its new golden era. While he no longer was receiving the media attention he once did (prior to Saturday’s running of the Preakness Stakes, that is), few trainers work harder than the aging Lukas.

On March 16 — as a crowd of 33,963 looked on at Oaklawn with the sun shining down — Lukas stablemates Will Take Charge and Oxbow finished first and second respectively in the $600,000 Rebel Stakes, the key prep race for the Arkansas Derby.

“I was feeling pretty good 100 yards from the wire,” Lukas said after the race. “The competition was so tough. The hill gets a little steeper from this point.”

Will Take Charge had won the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, but he fell to sixth in the Southwest Stakes on Presidents’ Day on a wet track. Lukas joked after Will Take Charge won the Rebel: “Will Take Charge is a fair-weather horse. He said he didn’t feel like running in the rain last time.”

Veteran Jon Court was aboard Will Take Charge in the Rebel.

Aboard Oxbow that day was another veteran jockey, Mike Smith.

Oxbow ran in the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 13, finishing a disappointing fifth with 50-year-old Gary Stevens aboard. Oxbow competed three weeks later in the Kentucky Derby, finishing sixth.

Oxbow, owned by the legendary Calumet Farm of Kentucky, then shocked the racing world this past Saturday in Baltimore with a wire-to-wire win in the Preakness. Kentucky Derby winner Orb had been the heavy favorite coming into the race.

Oxbow was a 15-1 longshot.

“I get paid to spoil dreams,” Lukas said. “You can’t mail ’em in. It’s a different surface and a different time. You gotta line ’em up and win ’em.”

Calumet, Lukas and Stevens represent racing royalty.

Consider Lukas’ resume:

— He has trained 24 Eclipse Award winners, including greats such as Althea, Azeri and Winning Colors.

— He has trained three Horse of the Year honorees — Lady’s Secret in 1986, Criminal Type in 1990 and Charismatic in 1999.

— He has won 14 Triple Crown races, surpassing “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons on the list of Triple Crown winning trainers with the Preakness win on Saturday. That record includes four Kentucky Derby wins, six Preakness Stakes wins and four Belmont Stakes victories.

— He once won five consecutive Triple Crown races, beginning with the Preakness in 1994 and ending with the 1996 Kentucky Derby, when he sent out five horses and won it with Grindstone.

— He became the all-time money winner among thoroughbred trainers in 1988. He was the first trainer to top $100 million and $200 million in stakes earnings.

— He has saddled more than 40 Kentucky Derby starters.

Last year when Lukas got Optimizer into the Kentucky Derby at the last moment, longtime Newark Star-Ledger sports columnist Jerry Izenberg wrote: “The battle lines leap to mind in a rush of memory — Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird — linked together as closely as second skins in a pantheon of confrontations where each heartbeat combines a lot of Ahab and a lot of the White Whale. Here in ‘Weep No More’ city, year after year for a long time, it was always D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert.”

Izenberg went on to describe Lukas as “racing’s lion in winter” and said: “The white heat of his competitor’s heart burns so fiercely you could light downtown Louisville with it for a month.”

Stevens ended a seven-year retirement in January and won his third Preakness. He already had three Kentucky Derby and three Belmont Stakes victories.

“At 50 years old, after seven years of retirement, it doesn’t get any better than this,” Stevens said. “This is super, super sweet, and it happened for the right guy. All the stars were aligned. It’s even more special winning it for Wayne Lukas and his team.”

Stevens was riding for Lukas when the jockey won his first Triple Crown race aboard filly Winning Colors in the 1988 Kentucky Derby. Stevens had last won a Triple Crown race aboard Point Given in the Belmont Stakes in 2001.

“He supported me,” Stevens said of Lukas. “He was the first guy to call me up. He said, ‘I’m going to have a colt for you. His name is Oxbow.'”

Lukas had not won a Triple Crown event since saddling Commendable in the 2000 Belmont.

Shug McGaughey, Orb’s trainer, said of Lukas: “When Wayne wasn’t going good, he was still the first guy out on his pony. The guy is a credit to racing. He’s always upbeat and optimistic.”

Lukas had three of the nine horses in the Preakness (Will Take Charge finished seventh and Titletown Five finished ninth). He said of breaking the tie with Fitzsimmons for Triple Crown victories: “I shared that record with a very special name. If I never broke it, I was proud of that. But I’m also proud to have it.”

Calumet, meanwhile, has produced:

— Two Triple Crown winners, Whirlaway in 1941 and Citation in 1948.

— Eight Kentucky Derby winners. In addition to Whirlaway and Citation, there were Pensive in 1944, Ponder in 1949, Hill Gail in 1952, Iron Liege in 1957, Tim Tam in 1958 and Forward Pass in 1968.

— Eight Preakness winners.

— 11 horses in the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame — Alydar, Armed, Bewitch, Citation, Coaltown, Davona Dale, Real Delight, Twilight Tear, Two Lea, Tim Tam and Whirlaway.

— Two trainers in the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame — Ben. A Jones and H.A. “Jimmy” Jones.

— Five Horse of the Year titles — Whirlaway in 1941 and 1942, Twilight Tear in 1944 (the first filly ever to be voted Horse of the Year), Armed in 1947 and Citation in 1948.

The 762-acre breeding and training farm was established in Lexington in 1924 by William Monroe Wright, the owner of Calumet Baking Powder Co. The farm initially bred and raced standardbred horses. Wright’s son Warren took over in 1932 and changed the focus to thoroughbreds. The first stakes winner came in 1933 when Hadagal won the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park in New York.

Some of the finest thoroughbreds in history would go on to wear Calumet’s devil red and blue silks. Ben A. Jones came on board as trainer in 1939, and Whirlaway gave Calumet its first Kentucky Derby victory two years later, just months before the U.S. entry into World War II.

By 1947, the farm had become the first ever to exceed $1 million in purse earnings. After Citation won the Triple Crown in 1948, jockey Eddie Arcaro described him as the best horse he ever rode.

Ben Jones passed away in 1961, and his son Jimmy retired in 1964. Calumet had only 20 stakes winners from 1964-77. In 1976, John Veitch, whose father Sylvester had been a Hall of Fame trainer, was hired. Veitch was the trainer of Alydar in 1978 when the sport saw perhaps its greatest rivalry as Alydar finished just behind Affirmed in all three legs of the Triple Crown.

By the 1980s, Calumet was in serious decline.

Alydar died in 1990, and the farm went into bankruptcy soon after that. In 1992, Calumet was put on the auction block. It seemed that an iconic name in racing history was about to die.

Mismanagement and fraud had gone on for years. In 2000, former Calumet president J.T. Lundy and former chief financial officer Gary Matthews were convicted of fraud and bribery and sent to prison.

Enter businessman Henryk de Kwiatkowski, a Polish-born Canadian citizen with a deep love of racing and its traditions.

When he heard of the auction, he quickly flew to Lexington, arriving less than an hour before the sale began. He became the Calumet owner following a $17 million bid. Within weeks, his employees were repairing the white fences and mowing the lush grass, returning Calumet to its former beauty.

Following de Kwiatkowski’s death in 2003, the farm remained in a trust controlled by family members.

Last year, the Calumet Investment Group bought the farm from the trust for more than $36 million and leased it to Bowling Green, Ky., native Brad Kelley. He’s the fourth-largest landowner in the country with more than 1.7 million acres of ranching land in Texas, New Mexico and Florida.

As for Lukas, his story is well-known to racing enthusiasts. He was born on Sept. 2, 1935, in Wisconsin. He taught high school and coached basketball for nine years after graduating from the University of Wisconsin.

Lukas began training quarter horses in California in 1968. During the next decade, he trained 24 world championship quarter horses before switching to thoroughbreds.

Now, the “lion in in winter” has returned Calumet and jockey Gary Stevens to the racing spotlight.

Post to Twitter

Sporting Life Arkansas

Monday, November 26th, 2012

I knew big changes were afoot when Jeff Hankins left the Arkansas Business Publishing Group.

Jeff was a fixture at Arkansas Business, one of those people I thought might be there until retirement.

Now that Jeff has landed at the Arkansas State University System offices here in Little Rock, I have a feeling he will be happier than ever. He has long had a passion for ASU, his alma mater. There’s nothing like getting paid to do something you’re passionate about. Take it from a guy who is passionate about our state’s private colleges and universities and now has the chance to work full time for those 11 schools.

I hate to date myself, but I first met Jeff more than 30 years ago. He was a high school student in Pine Bluff working part time at the Pine Bluff Commercial. I was a college student in Arkadelphia, holding down a full-time job as the sports editor of the Daily Siftings Herald. The Commercial and the Siftings Herald were owned at the time by the Freeman family of Pine Bluff, and we worked closely together.

I became friends in the late 1970s with a Commercial sportswriter named Jim Harris, who was working for the newspaper’s well-known sports editor, the late Frank Lightfoot.

Let’s just say that Jim and I have covered a lot of miles together through the years — from the Liberty Bowl in Memphis to the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville (how many of you remember the fog that descended on the Arkansas-North Carolina game there in December 1981?) to the late (and not so great) Hall of Fame Bowl in Birmingham.

Within days of Jeff’s departure from Arkansas Business, it was announced that the vehicle for Jim Harris’ outstanding reporting and commentary on sports in our state — Arkansas Sports 360 — would be shut down by the Arkansas Business Publishing Group.

Fortunately, Jim was not without a vehicle for long.

Enter Simon Lee.

Simon, another longtime friend, was once an Arkansas Business employee. He’s an Internet whiz who has now made a career of doing web-based work for the health care industry. With most of Simon’s and business partner Jon Davis’ clients based outside the state, Simon has kept a low profile in Arkansas. But this Dumas native loves our state. He loves sports. He loves hunting and fishing. He loves the people and events that make Arkansas unique.

So two ol’ southeast Arkansas boys — Simon Lee from Dumas and Jim Harris from Pine Bluff — have hooked up to launch a go-to website at SportingLifeArkansas.com. The site went live last week.

Here’s what Simon had to say in his introduction letter on the site: “If you understand that sports in Arkansas is even more than tackles and blocks and dunks and homers and includes tee-ball, volleyball, swim meets, deer woods and eating some great food with good people, welcome. We are happy to launch a new online publication that features Jim Harris and a cast of other sports journalists and opinion makers from around the state.

“We want to bring you writers who will report and write about all levels of Arkansas sports, from the Razorbacks and Red Wolves to the Bears and Reddies. … We are going to work to be an outlet for sportswriters and aspiring sportswriters from high school through college. Part of the excitement of this for us is building a platform and outlet for the next generation of journalists and writers in our state.”

I’m happy to be part of the initial cast of characters at Sporting Life Arkansas.

Arkansas Business Publishing Group had a large audience for Arkansas Sports 360 but never could figure out how to make money off the venture. Simon thinks he can put his past business experience to work and find a way to monetize the site.

Sporting Life Arkansas won’t ignore hunting and fishing, which are so much a part of who we are as Arkansans.

“The sporting life in Arkansas is fun,” Simon writes. “The site should reflect that fun.”

Go to SportingLifeArkansas.com and check it out.

I like what I see so far.

Post to Twitter

Running for the roses

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

As I drove past the airport on my way out of Louisville on Sunday morning, the private jets still covered almost all available space in the general aviation area.

The millionaires, it seems, were sleeping in.

My wife and I, however, were on the road back to Arkansas. This was my eighth Kentucky Derby but my first in 23 years.

When Melissa and I were engaged but not yet married in the spring of 1989, we drove west from Washington, D.C., to stay with a group of friends at a Lexington hotel, making the short trip to Louisville for Derby Day.

We were young and adventuresome, sitting on the infield for what turned out to be the second coldest Derby in history. There was sleet that morning, and the temperature never made it out of the 40s as Sunday Silence held off Easy Goer in the Run for the Roses.

Two weeks later, Melissa and I made quick drive from Washington to Baltimore on a much warmer day to watch Sunday Silence and Easy Goer square off in the Preakness Stakes. Despite Sunday Silence’s victory in the Derby, the bettors in Maryland had made Easy Goer, the son of Alydar, the favorite.

In what some racing experts rank among the top 10 thoroughbred races of all time, Sunday Silence won the Preakness by a nose after a duel down the stretch. Pat Day was aboard Easy Goer. Patrick Valenzeula was aboard Sunday Silence. It was a race for the ages as Sunday Silence became the 23rd Derby winner since 1919 to complete a Derby-Preakness double.

Three weeks later, Easy Goer won the Belmont Stakes to deny Sunday Silence the Triple Crown.

I was determined that this Derby trip would be a more civilized experience for Melissa than the one in 1989 had been. Having been appointed a Kentucky Colonel by the governor of Kentucky when I worked for the Delta Regional Authority, we were able to purchase what’s known as the Colonels’ package for Oaks Day on Friday and Derby Day on Saturday. It was my Christmas present to myself.

Along with two grandstand seats outside, we had two seats each day at a table inside the Kentucky Derby Museum, where there was a full buffet and no lines at the windows or the restrooms. If you’ve ever seen the lines outside, you realize how important that is.

As always, Arkansas was well represented on Derby Day.

The winner of the first race on the 13-race card was Atigun, owned by Arkansas’ John Ed Anthony.

Joe and Scott Ford of Little Rock had a horse running later in the day.

And when I began going through The Courier-Journal’s Derby special section Sunday morning, there on the fashion page was Keeley DeSalvo of Hot Springs (owner of the famed Pancake Shop on Central Avenue), resplendent in a yellow outfit and matching hat.

As I’ve written previously on the Southern Fried blog, Arkansas — a state with no NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB teams — is only in the major leagues of professional sports in one area. That sport is thoroughbred racing.

Being a newspaper junkie, I picked up the Thursday edition of The Courier-Journal as soon as we arrived in town. The lead story on the front page concerned the previous day’s post-position draw. There in the second paragraph were the words “Arkansas Derby” since Arkansas Derby winner Bodemeister was the Kentucky Derby favorite.

I flew our state’s colors in a sense, wearing Arkansas Derby ties to the Colonels’ reception on Thursday night, the Oaks on Friday and the Derby on Saturday.

Arkansas native Kane Webb is now the editor of Louisville magazine. We had dinner with Kane and his wife Fran on Friday night at a place called Jack Fry’s on Bardstown Road.

Derby Eve in Louisville is like New Year’s Eve in other cities, so Kane had made the dinner reservations back in January. There was bumper-to-bumper traffic along Bardstown Road. We’re both former newspapermen, and Kane knew Jack Fry’s would be my kind of place. It was established by Jack Fry and his wife Flossie in 1933.

Here’s how the restaurant’s website describes him: “Fry was known as a rambling, gambling kind of guy who loved amateur boxing and the ponies. As a result, Jack Fry’s became a sportsman’s hangout, as evidenced by the numerous historic photographs that fill the walls of the current Jack Fry’s.

“He was also known to conduct his bookmaking and bootlegging affairs discreetly from the back room. He was a much-loved character who often gave a free meal to a needy friend. Jack closed his business in 1972. After 10 years of renting this space as Por Que No, a Mexican restaurant, it was re-established as Jack Fry’s. Susan Seiller bought the restaurant in January 1987, the same year that saw the death of Jack Fry.”

After returning to the hotel from dinner, I was asleep within minutes. The Oaks and the Derby only take about two minutes each, but the days are long.

Oaks Day features a 12-race card with the first race beginning at 10:30 a.m. and the final race going off at about 6:30 p.m.

Derby Day features a 13-race card with a 10:30 a.m. post time for the first race and a 7:50 p.m. post time for the final race.

On Friday, a day when the infield had to be emptied at one point due to afternoon thunderstorms, the second-largest Oaks crowd ever showed up.

On Saturday, it was the largest Derby crowd in history as 165,307 people packed Churchill Downs.

The irony is that the Derby is bigger than ever  — truly among the classic American events — at a time when thoroughbred racing is suffering nationally.

A Courier-Journal editorial put it this way: “We hope, as the Stephen Foster lyrics say, the sun will shine bright on Churchill Downs for the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby. But the forecast for the future of horse racing in Kentucky remains cloudy.

“A bill aimed at allowing expanded gambling in Kentucky — a measure supporters have tied to the health of Kentucky’s signature horse industry — again has died, this year in the Kentucky Senate. The measure would have let voters decide whether the state constitution should be changed to allow expanded gambling.

“Supporters say expanded gambling is essential to make Kentucky’s $4 billion horse business viable with other states that allow gaming, such as casinos, and where proceeds are used to fatten purses and draw more horses to racetracks.”

Oaklawn Park at Hot Springs is one of those tracks that’s actually increasing purses on a regular basis.

The tie between Arkansas racing and Kentucky remains strong.

Providing commentary Saturday on NBC was Hot Springs native Randy Moss.

Guarding the door to the jockeys’ room as a Churchill Downs media relations volunteer was Hot Springs native Greg Fisher. I got to visit with Calvin Borel briefly Friday, telling him we’re proud to have him as a member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. 

My mother’s oldest brother moved to Louisville soon after the end of World War II to work for Belknap Hardware, a company that no longer exists but at one time was among the largest hardware distributors in the world. Uncle Bill Caskey had a box at Churchill Downs, and I began attending the Derby as a college student.

William Burke Belknap had founded the company in 1840 along the banks of the Ohio River in Louisville. He produced iron products such as horse and mule shoes, nails and spikes. The company was in a brick building at the corner of Third and Main with three employees.

When Belknap Hardware celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1940, there were 37 buildings covering 37 acres. The complex had underground passages and covered bridges. The 1940 company catalog had 3,000 pages with more than 75,000 items. By 1957, the catalog had 90,000 items listed.

I remember visiting that old Belknap complex. It was like something out of Dickens. Belknap went bankrupt in 1986 (my uncle had long since retired, ending his career as one of the company’s top executives) and closed its doors.

Uncle Bill and Aunt Sarah seemed to know everyone who was anyone in Louisville. Though he was a native of Des Arc, my uncle had become a fount of knowledge about the Derby and its traditions.

After college, I covered the Derby for several years as a sportswriter, always staying at my aunt and uncle’s home while bringing other writers along.

In 1982, when I was a young sportwriter at the Arkansas Democrat, Wally Hall and I made the trip to Louisville in my car, staying for almost a week at my aunt and uncle’s place in northeast Louisville.

Others who would make the drive with me in later years included Bob Wisener of The Sentinel-Record at Hot Springs, the late Kim Brazzel of the Arkansas Gazette and Harry King of The Associated Press (now with Stephens Media).

The memories of those trips are rich.

So I’ve watched the Kentucky Derby from the press box, the tunnel where the horses enter the track, the infield, my uncle’s box and now the Colonels’ section of the grandstand.

I’ve been fortunate in my career to have covered the Super Bowl, college bowl games too numerous to mention, the NCAA Tournament in basketball and much more.

The Kentucky Derby remains my favorite sports event.

I can assure you I won’t wait 23 years this time before going back.

Post to Twitter

Oaklawn’s Terry Wallace: Hall of Famer

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

The most recognizable voice in Arkansas?

If you were to guess Terry Wallace of Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, you might have the correct answer.

The 2012 race meet has begun, and Wallace’s voice is no longer heard in Hot Springs. Wallace, who retired from the track announcer’s booth at Oaklawn last year after 37 seasons of calling races in the Spa City, set a record for the most consecutive races at a single track — a record that might never be broken.

He hit the 20,000 mark with his call of the third race on March 25, 2010.

He ended the streak at 20,191 calls without a miss following the fourth race on Jan. 28, 2011.

“When someone says Oaklawn, the first thing that comes to mind is Terry Wallace,” said Larry Collmus, the track announcer at Gulfstream Park and Monmouth Park.

Wallace will be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame as part of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2012 when the organization holds its annual induction banquet on Friday, Feb. 3, at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock.

Tickets for the induction banquet are $100 each and may be obtained by calling Jennifer Smith at (501) 663-4328 or Catherine Johnson at (501) 821-1021.

Wallace is among 11 individual inductees — six from the regular category, three from the senior category and two from the posthumous category — in the Class of 2012. The Hall of Fame also will induct the 1994 University of Arkansas national championship basketball team.

Oaklawn’s owner, Charles J. Cella, once called Wallace’s consecutive race streak “the most incredible record in sports. This record will never be touched. I can’t imagine anyone will come close.”

Wallace came to Oaklawn in 1975 and has been a consistent presence there ever since. He regularly arrived at the track on race days by 7:30 a.m. If a radio station had a live remote broadcast from Oaklawn, he might be there as early as 5 a.m. At home each night, he would work late into the evening handicapping the next day’s races.

Arkansans loved the way Wallace would play on horses’ names with dramatic inflections, pauses and a strong emphasis on certain syllables. Ask any race fan to name a favorite horse that Wallace called, and that person is likely to come up with a name.

Perhaps it was Dragset.

Or Razorback.

Or Chop Chop Tomahawk.

And then there was Boozing.

“The crowd really got into that one when I dragged the name out,” Wallace said.

Wallace’s path to Arkansas was an unlikely one. The Cleveland native majored in modern languages at Xavier University in Cincinnati before spending a year at the Sorbonne, the commonly used name for the famed University of Paris, which was founded in the 12th century.

Wallace planned to be a teacher, and he did just that for several years following college.

“When I was in summer school at Cincinnati, I got a job with some buddies parking cars out at River Downs,” Wallace said. “That led to a job as a runner for the guys in the press box. I started to develop an interest in racing.”

Wallace taught French, first at the junior high level and later at the high school level in Cincinnati. He still would work at River Downs during the summer. Wallace was recording the call of a race there in French one day for his own amusement when the track announcer made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. If Wallace would record a few races in English, the announcer would offer a critique.

Wallace was home grading papers one night when he received a call from Latonia Race Course manager Johnny Battaglia (whose oldest son, Mike, has long set the morning line for the Kentucky Derby). Battaglia’s track in the northern Kentucky suburbs of Cincinnati needed a fill-in announcer. Wallace headed for Latonia, which is now known as Turfway Park.

In the months that followed, Wallace would get to know and occasionally fill in for the famed track announcer Chick Anderson. It was Anderson, on the CBS Sports national telecast, who made perhaps the most famous call in thoroughbred racing history — his description of Secretariat’s stretch run in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. Anderson told the nation that the 3-year-old was “moving like a tremendous machine.”

Wallace replaced Anderson at Oaklawn in 1975 when Anderson took the track announcer’s job at Santa Anita.

In his first years in the racing industry, Wallace performed a number of jobs in an attempt to make ends meet. He was even a jockey’s agent for a time. For the Daily Racing Form, he moved from call taker to chart caller, handling a racing circuit that included the Fair Grounds in New Orleans.

In December 1974, Wallace received a call from W.T. “Bish” Bishop, the dapper, erudite general manager at Oaklawn. Anderson had handed in his resignation and suggested that Wallace be hired as his replacement.

Bishop took Anderson’s advice, and Wallace was soon on his way to Arkansas.

Wallace continued working at other tracks during the nine months there was no racing at Oaklawn, including calling jockey Steve Cauthen’s maiden win at River Downs.

Wallace called races for 14 years at Ak-Sar-Ben (that’s Nebraska spelled backward) in Omaha, which closed in 1995. He’s a member of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame. Wallace even called races for three years at Louisiana Downs.

Wallace always has been known for his work ethic.

“The problem with those other tracks was that when I went home at night, I wasn’t in Arkansas,” he said. “I love Hot Springs.”

The people of Arkansas have loved him in return.

His long stay at Oaklawn allowed Wallace to call the races of such greats as Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, Curlin, Azeri, Cigar, Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones, Sunny’s Halo and Temperence Hill.

For this one-time French teacher, it has been quite a career.

Post to Twitter

Jockey Alonzo Clayton: Hall of Famer

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton reached sports stardom at an early age. In 1892, at the age of just 15, he became the youngest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby.

It’s safe to say, however, that most Arkansans have never heard of Clayton.

The Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame will remedy that situation Feb. 3 when Clayton is inducted as part of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2012. The induction banquet will be held at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock.

Tickets for the annual banquet are $100 each and may be obtained by calling Jennifer Smith at (501) 663-4328 or Catherine Johnson at (501) 821-1021.

Clayton was born in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1876 and moved with his parents to North Little Rock when he was 10. There were nine children in the family, and finances were tight even though his father had steady work as a carpenter. Clayton worked as a hotel errand boy and as a shoeshine boy to earn extra income for his family.

In an 1896 story in the Thoroughbred Record, it was written that Clayton also had attended school as a boy and was considered “exceptionally bright.”

Clayton was only 12 years old when he left home to join his brother, Albertus, a jockey who was riding at the time for the legendary E.J. “Lucky” Baldwin. Alonzo Clayton soon found work as an exercise rider for Baldwin’s stables. His first race as a jockey came in 1890 at Clifton, N.J. He had his first victory later that year.

Thoroughbred racing had become one of the top sports in America by that time, and it didn’t take long for those on the East Coast to recognize Clayton as a rising star. He won the Jerome Stakes aboard Picknicker and the Champagne Stakes aboard Azra at Morris Park in Westchester County, N.Y., in 1891.

On May 11, 1892, Clayton was aboard Azra in the Kentucky Derby. Azra came from behind in the stretch to win the derby by a nose, and Clayton became one of only two 15-year-old jockeys to win America’s most famous race.

He would be in the money in the Kentucky Derby three more times in his career, finishing second in 1893, third in 1895 and second in 1897.

Clayton’s best year was 1895 when he had 144 wins and finished in the money in almost 60 percent of his races. He won the Arkansas Derby that year at the Little Rock Jockey Club’s Clinton Park. In 1896, he became one of the few black jockeys ever to compete in the Preakness Stakes at Baltimore. He finished third.

Other significant races won by Clayton were the Clark Stakes at Churchill Downs in 1892, the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in 1892, the Brooklyn Handicap and Futurity at Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn in 1894, the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs in 1894 and 1895, the Cotton Stakes in Memphis in 1895, the Saratoga Stakes in 1895, the Latonia Derby in Cincinnati in 1897, the St. Louis Derby in 1897, the California Derby in San Francisco in 1898 and the Suburban Handicap in Brooklyn in 1898.

In an interview with the Chicago Daily Tribune, Clayton called the Suburban Handicap “the greatest race I ever rode.”

Racing historian Ed Hotaling said Clayton “became one of the great riders of the New York circuit all through the 1890s, but he rode all over the country.”

“While spending most of his time on the road, Clayton, who never married, came back to North Little Rock regularly to visit family,” Cary Bradburn wrote for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “He bought his parents a farm in 1894 in what is now Sherwood and had the Queen Anne-style house (in North Little Rock) built in 1895. His celebrity status spawned a legend that erroneously linked him to another Queen Anne house, known today as the Baker House, a bed and breakfast at 109 West Fifth St. in North Little Rock. According to legend, Clayton, misidentified as Artemis E. Colburn, raced horses in England and came back to his hometown of Argenta (now North Little Rock) to build a grand house; however, he soon left the area.

“The reason for Clayton’s departure is not clear, but in a larger context racism did contribute. In the early 1900s, bigotry drove black jockeys out of the sport they had dominated in America since the mid-1600s. Most stable owners stopped hiring them when sanctions, and even physical threats against black jockeys, increased. Some went overseas, as Clayton may have done.”

Indeed, black jockeys once ruled the sport.

“These were the first great American athletes, white or black, and they were written out of the history books,” Hotaling told the Baltimore Sun. “The saddest part is that they weren’t and haven’t been brought back into the sport.”

Black jockeys won at least 15 of the first 28 runnings of the Kentucky Derby.

“Once economics — big money — came into racing, the black jockey was pushed out,” said Inez Chapel of the group African-Americans in Horse Racing. “And racism is still alive. There are black jockeys out there, but they do what they have to do. They claim to be Jamaican or something else. If you speak in an unknown tongue, then the color of your skin doesn’t bother people.”

As racing began to gain prominence following the Civil War, many horse owners used their former slaves as jockeys. Former slaves tended to gravitate toward the sport because they were comfortable working with horses. Jim Crow laws changed that. The majority of black jockeys were gone by 1910, though some continued to race in more dangerous steeplechase events.

The last black jockey to compete in the Kentucky Derby was Henry King aboard Planet in 1921.

“That was a rarity,” Hotaling said. “If people see that and think black jockeys competed into the 1920s alongside white riders, that’s just not true. By 1910, they were all but gone.”

The last black jockey to ride in the Preakness Stakes was Willie Simms in 1898. The last black jockey to ride in the Belmont Stakes was Jimmy Lee in 1908.

Clayton and his family lived in what later would be known as the Engelberger House in North Little Rock from 1895-99. His earnings had enabled him to build a home that the Arkansas Gazette described in 1895 as the “finest house on the North Side.”

The home at 2105 Maple St. was purchased by Swiss immigrant Joseph Engelberger in 1912. It was listed in 1990 on the National Register of Historic Places.

Bradburn wrote: “Written in pencil in the attic are the names of Clayton and eight brothers and sisters, as well as ‘Mama and Papa Clayton’ and ‘1899’ and ‘Goodbye.’ On a baseboard to the right is a drawing of what appears to be a jockey, under which is written ‘Ragtime Jimmie,’ the meaning of which is unknown.”

In April 1901, Alonzo Clayton was arrested at Aqueduct in New York for allegedly fixing a race. The charge later was dismissed, but his career was over for all practical purposes. He made short comeback attempts in Montana in 1902 and Memphis in 1904.

Clayton died in March 1917 in California of tuberculosis. He was only 41. He is buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles.

 

 

Post to Twitter