Archive for February, 2010

Apple Blossom fever

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

If you don’t already have a reserved seat at Oaklawn for the Apple Blossom Invitational on April 9 — or if friends have not already invited you to sit in their box — plan on being in the infield or spending some serious cash for reserved seats.

Go to www.stubhub.com and you’ll find reserved seats starting at $249 for that Friday afternoon. When I checked today, a table for the day in the Post Parade Restaurant was going for $1,765. A box near the finish line was going for $2,353 (how do you come up with that number?) and a box down front against the windows was going for $3,900.

I must disagree a bit with my friend and former boss Wally Hall, who wrote this morning that the Apple Blossom will be the greatest sporting event in the state’s history. As stated in an earlier post, that title will continue to rest with the 1969 Arkansas-Texas football game. After all, it was the only college football game being played on that first Saturday in December, and people only had three networks to chose from in those days.

The Apple Blossom will be run on a Friday afternoon rather than a Saturday. Because of that, most Americans won’t see it on television. They will read about it later. Yes, the crowd in Hot Springs on April 9 will be much larger than the crowd in Razorback Stadium was on that drizzly day 40 years ago. But the national significance of the race just won’t be the same. I doubt the president will attend and present the trophy afterward (though it would be neat if he did).

Still, it’s big. It’s big for Hot Springs, and it’s big for Arkansas.

As longtime St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz wrote of the planned race between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta: “It’s the matchup that thoroughbred fans have been waiting for. Charles Cella, embracing the role of matchmaker, started making calls last fall. It didn’t take long for him to get a commitment from Jerry Moss, Zenyatta’s primary owner. Jess Jackson, who owns Rachel Alexandra, wasn’t as agreeable initially, but Cella eventually won him over.”

Miklasz goes on to write that Cella, a St. Louis businessman whose family has a long history in the city, has been “absolutely great for the racing industry. He helped generate significant star power for Smarty Jones in 2005 by setting up a $5 million bonus incentive that had racing fans and media buzzing (yes, ol’ Bernie made a mistake. That was in 2004. You can tell Missouri is not much of a racing state).

“And the charismatic Smarty Jones won the big prize for his owners by prevailing in the Kentucky Derby after winning the Rebel States and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn. Cella paid up the $5 million and said it was worth every dollar.

“A showdown between the undefeated mare Zenyatta and 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra will spark a tremendous amount of positive interest in the sport. But there is some risk involved; the $5 million purse stands only if both princesses show up for the Apple Blossom. And there’s a strong chance that both starlets will have one prep race before heading to Oaklawn, so there’s always the possibility of injury or loss of form.”

Cella told his hometown newspaper: “It sets up spectacularly. It’s East vs. West. It’s the 2009 Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra, vs. No. 2. It’s a horse who has never lost, Zenyatta, vs. the horse, Rachel Alexandra, that did not lose in 2009.”

Rachel Alexandra breezed six furlongs in 1:14 Wednesday over a fast track at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. She will run there March 13 in the New Orleans Ladies Stakes. Trainer Steve Asmussen called the workout “ideal” and “way easier” than her Feb. 18 workout when she went five furlongs.

Back in Hot Springs, meanwhile, Steve Arrison is at it again over at the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau. He’s printing 50,000 trading cards of the two thoroughbreds to give out as free souvenirs.

“We’ve done a series of trading cards in the past,” Arrison said. “Most of those have featured President Bill Clinton and his connection to his hometown of Hot Springs. We did a card featuring the racehorse Smarty Jones, which proved tremendously popular with the public.”

The first public distribution of the cards will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Hot Springs Visitor Center in the Hill Wheatley Plaza on Central Avenue. Oaklawn will disribute free copies of the cards the following Saturday.

If the weather is good, how many people do you think will be at Oaklawn on April 9? It’s a weekday remember, but it might be an unofficial holiday in Arkansas. Will there be 70,000? 80,000? More?

The buildup to this race might be as fun as the race itself.

Post to Twitter

The Politically Correct University

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

University of Arkansas professor Robert Maranto showed up at the Clinton School of Public Service on Tuesday to discuss his book, “The Politically Correct University: Problems, Scope and Reform.”

Maranto was appointed in the fall of 2008 as the Twenty-First Century Chair in Leadership, the sixth and final endowed chair to be filled in the Department of Education Reform on the Fayetteville campus. Maranto had been a political science professor at Villanova University.

The education reform department was established in July 2005 in an attempt to improve K-12 education in Arkansas and across the country. The department now offers a doctor of philosophy degree in education policy.

Maranto has been researching, writing and teaching about education and leadership for more than two decades. The long list of schools where he has taught includes Bryn Mawr, Arizona State, the University of Virginia, Lafayette, James Madison, the University of Minnesota and the University of Southern Mississippi.

Maranto said that when he entered college as a student at the University of Maryland, he thought college should be about debating great ideas. He soon learned that college was not all that it could be or should be. Maranto said that though he usually votes Republican, he’s not a raging conservative. In fact, he found that he agreed with many of the Clinton administration officials with whom he worked at Washington’s Brookings Institution.

As a conservative professor, Maranto said he’s often asked by other conservatives: “How are they treating you at that university?”

He said a lot of conservatives figure that being on a university campus is much like being a spouse in a potentially abusive relationship. And indeed he has discovered that universities “are pretty overwhelmingly left wing. It’s especially true of the elite universities.”

In fact, he repeated the famous quote that one can now find more Marxists in the Harvard faculty lounge than in the Kremlin.

“I would expect there to be some imbalance in the liberal arts,” he said. “But not 10 to 1, 20 to 1 or 30 to 1. I’ve found that expressing different points of view can hurt you in the job market. … We’re social animals. People value group solidarity.”

Of course, conservatives have been saying that university faculties are biased toward the left since William F. Buckley Jr. wrote “God and Man at Yale” way back in 1951. Yet it seems that things have gotten worse through the decades.

In a guest column for The Washington Post, Maranto wrote: “I spent four years in the 1990s working at the centrist Brookings Institution and for the Clinton administration and felt right at home ideologically. Yet during much of my two decades in academia, I’ve been on the ‘far right’ as one who thinks that welfare reform helped the poor, that the United States was right to fight and win the Cold War and that environmental regulations should be balanced against property rights. All these views — commonplace in American society and among the political class — are practically verboten in much of academia.”

In the column, Maranto told the story of a sociologist he knows whose decision to became a registered Republican caused “a sensation” at the university where the professor taught.

“It was as if I had become a child molester,” he told Maranto.

Maranto had this to say about the time he interviewed for a job at a prestigious research university: “Everything seemed to be going well until I mentioned, in a casual conversation with department members over dinner, that I planned to vote Republican in the upcoming presidential election. Conversation came to a halt, and someone quickly changed the subject. The next day, I thought my final interview went fairly well. But the department ended up hiring someone who had published far less but apparently ‘fit’ better than I did. At least that’s what I was told when I called a month later to learn the outcome of the job search, having never received any further communication from the school.”

He doesn’t believe there are legions of leftist professors out there on a mission to purge academia of Republicans. Things are much more subtle than that.

“When making hiring decisions and confronted with several good candidates, we college professors, like anyone else, tend to select people like ourselves,” Maranto wrote. “Unfortunately, subtle biases in how conservative students and professors are treated in the classroom and in the job market have very unsubtle effects on the ideological makeup of the professoriate. The resulting lack of intellectual diversity harms academia by limiting the questions academics ask, the phenomena we study and ultimately the conclusions we reach.”

Maranto told his attentive audience Tuesday that the end result is that universities don’t do as good a job as they should in producing good citizens since it’s hard to be a good citizen without being a well-informed citizen.

“I just don’t think universities understand conservatism very well because there aren’t any conservatives in their midst,” he said.

College professors talk a lot about freedom of speech. I grew up in a neighborhood filled with college professors. Faculty members make a sport of censuring college presidents and other administrators they believe have limited their freedom of speech. Maranto is simply asking them not to be hypocrites who embrace freedom of speech for themselves but not for those with whom they disagree politically.

The solution to this growing problem?

“Ultimately, universities will have to clean their own houses,” Maranto wrote in the Post. “Professors need to re-embrace a culture of reasoned inquiry and debate. And since debate requires disagreement, higher education needs to encourage intellectual diversity in its hiring and promotion decisions with something like the fervor it shows for ethnic and racial diversity. It’s the only way universities will earn back society’s respect and reclaim their role at the center of public life.”

Post to Twitter

Downtown

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

I’ve received some positive feedback from a column I wrote for last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The theme was that Main Street still matters.

And we’re using ”Main Street” in the generic sense for downtown. It actually might be Front Street. It might be Cherry Street. You get the point.

I had written in part about Arkadelphia’s efforts to restore the old Royal Theater on Main Street. There has not been a movie shown in the Royal since 1976.

In Fayetteville on Saturday, former Sen. David Pryor told my son about how he had worked at the Royal Theater when Pryor was a college student at Henderson. My son and David’s grandson (Mark and Jill’s son) both run track for Catholic High, by the way. That’s why they found themselves at the same indoor track meet on the University of Arkansas campus.

I also received an e-mail from longtime outdoors writer Joe Mosby. He told me about a night he spent in a small apartment in the Royal Theater many decades ago.

When you start talking about things that happened in various downtowns in years gone by, you tend to dredge up good memories.

Downtowns are important. For too long, many communities viewed “economic development” as simply getting enough grants to build an industrial park on the edge of town. They threw up “spec buildings,” some of which still sit empty. Economic development in this century requires a more holistic approach. Thankfully, there are communities across Arkansas that now realize that downtown redevelopment is indeed an important part of the economic development mix.

“Increasing energy prices have made developing in compact, historic commercial areas an important strategy in both community and economic development,” Cathie Matthews, the director of the state Department of Arkansas Heritage, has written. “In fact, more and more we’re seeing that downtown revitalization plays a vital role in large-scale site location. When a technology firm chose Central Arkansas as its new site location, local media reported the firm was impressed with the downtown and what it has become. … When downtown revitalization is cited as a factor in technology recruitment — 21st century economic development — we know we’ve made it.”

Why is downtown still important long after many retail establishments have migrated “out to the highway?”

The Main Street Arkansas program points out that:

– Downtown is a symbol of community economic health, local quality of life, pride and community history.

– A vital downtown retains and creates jobs that strengthen the tax base. Long-term revitalization establishes capable businesses that use public services and provide tax revenues.

– Adaptive reuse of historic buildings means conserving energy and natural resources. Historic buildings typically last longer than new ones.

– Downtown can serve as a business incubator. Attractive storefronts and reasonable rents make downtown a hub for tomorrow’s entrepreneurs. Independent businesses support local families and keep profits in town.

– Downtown is where members of the community congregate. Special events and celebrations downtown reinforce a sense of community.

– A vital downtown area reduces sprawl. Downtown concentrates retail in one area and uses community resources wisely.

– According to the National Main Street Center, 80 percent of adult travelers included a historic activity while traveling, and they spend more than the average tourist. Downtown districts can become tourist attractions by virtue of the character of buildings, unique shopping and authentic culinary experiences there.

Who’s doing things right? Certainly El Dorado, as I pointed out in a blog post last year. In fact, downtown El Dorado is featured in the March edition of Southern Living magazine.

Taylor Bruce writes in the magazine: “Fresh from winning a Great American Main Street Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, El Dorado is booming. Rumor has it that the downtown recently hit the 100 percent occupancy mark, reminiscent of the 1920s oil rush to the area.

“El Dorado these days is as quaint as pies on a windowsill. The town square is dotted with pear trees, regal street clocks and red English-style phone booths. Antiques sellers, a bustling Mexican restaurant serving rooftop margaritas, a book nook, a pharmacy-turned-bakery and a small hotel that dishes up breakfast in a spiffed-up train car make the rest of south Arkansas envious.”

The article spotlights:

– The Olde Towne Store, which sells health foods and, according to the article, “bakes the best cookies in Union County.”

– The Elm Street Bakery & Coffee Bar.

– The Union Square Guest Quarters.

In the most recent post prior to this one, I talked about downtown Hot Springs. Probably my favorite downtown walk in Arkansas is along Bathhouse Row. The art galleries have helped revitalize downtown (I do miss the old auction galleries I would visit with my aunt as a child), but there definitely must be a focus on improving downtown hotels and perhaps even transforming buildings downtown into condominiums once the economy turns around and developers can again access the credit markets.

It’s important to all Arkansans that downtown Hot Springs — with its history and tradition — do well.

In fact, I just received a call from the new general manager of the Arlington Hotel promising me that improvements are on the way at the Arlington. That’s good news. It’s also good news that there’s finally progress on getting some of the bathhouses leased. The opening of the Quapaw Baths & Spa means there are now two facilities along bathhouse row (the Buckstaff has continued to operate through the years) where one can receive spa services.

Economic development priorities for Hot Springs the next decade should center on improving the downtown hotels, getting more of the bathhouses leased and getting more people to live downtown. Hopefully, the transformation of the old Majestic Hotel into apartments will go forward.

Where are other Arkansas downtowns that are doing things right?

North Little Rock has certainly made strides along its Main Street in recent years.

I’ve always liked the courthouse square at Searcy.

Downtown Batesville has history, charm and a lot of potential.

Cherry Street in Helena (when can we get rid of the official Helena-West Helena name of town?) remains a movie set just waiting on a developer with some capital.

The courthouse square in Harrison is nice, and the reopening of the Hotel Seville has brought a certain panache to the city.

They’ve done a nice job through the years with historic preservation in downtown Rogers and downtown Van Buren.

Conway and Jonesboro have seen significant improvements in the past decade. There are restaurants and life after dark again in those downtowns.

What are your favorite Arkansas downtowns and why?

Post to Twitter

The Spa City

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

The anticipation continues to build for the April 9 Apple Blossom Invitational at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs.

A special website containing information about the April 9 race can now be found at www.appleblossominvitational.com. Let’s just hope that Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra stay well — thoroughbreds are fragile creatures  after all — and the race comes off as planned.

Steve Arrison, the chief executive officer of the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, said there’s international interest in the race with hotel reservations and inquiries pouring in by the thousands each day. Hotel and motels are expected to fill up in Hot Springs with people also staying in Little Rock, Benton, Bryant, Malvern and Arkadelphia.

In his column for Stephens Media, Harry King wrote: “The caller from Saudi Arabia wanted to know how big an aircraft is too big for Memorial Field in Hot Springs. We handled Vice President Cheney’s 757 and loaded up a couple of 727s with about 370 people for a Promise Keepers march in Washington, airport manager George Downey responded. Not big enough.”

So now, it seems, the sheiks are coming.

What a great spring this is shaping up to be for the Spa City.

I was asked earlier today if this race will be the biggest sports event ever held within the borders of Arkansas. In a word, no. The Big Shootout between Arkansas and Texas in December 1969 was bigger. That’s because college football is bigger than thoroughbred racing in this country. But this event will bring signficant media attention to Hot Springs, which some of us like to refer to as the Saratoga of the South.

Consider that:

– The Sun Belt Conference basketball tournament March 6-9 will be the biggest NCAA Division I basketball tournament in the country as far as the number of teams competing. The Sun Belt is bringing 26 college basketball teams — 13 men’s teams and 13 women’s teams — to one location for games that will be played on two courts in one building over four days.

“It’s kind of interesting,” Wright Waters, the Sun Belt Conference commissioner, told Arkansas Sports 360. “The eight men’s teams and eight women’s teams last year had so much fun that I think they rubbed it in the 10 teams that weren’t here. And the 10 teams that weren’t here went to the spring meeting and kind of lobbied the presidents and the athletic directors.”

In other words, people had such a good time in Hot Springs last year that the conference decided to let everyone in on the fun. So 24 college games will be played over four days. Some of the games will be played in the Summit Arena. In another part of the Hot Springs Convention Center, they will bring in a court and temporary bleachers for additional games.

“This is not only a tremendous community, but the leadership of the city and the management of the building are just super,” Waters told Arkansas Sports 360. “So we’re able to produce this kind of different format this year of bringing all 26 teams to one site, and we’ll play 10 games the first day, eight the second day, four and then two, and there just aren’t many buildings where you can do that. We’re excited about it.”

– The state high school championship games will again be played at the Summit Arena from March 11-13. There will be 14 championship games over three days — seven girls’ games and seven boys’ games. So that makes a total of 38 basketball games in the building in an eight-day period.

– Bo Derek will be the grand marshal of the World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 17 on Bridge Street downtown. Derek gained fame in 1979 as the perfect fantasy woman in the Blake Edwards’ film “10.” I was in college then. How well we remember the sight of Derek, with her air in beaded cornrows, running in slow motion on the beach.

There also will be green fireworks, Irish belly dancers (you read that correctly), floats, the Irish Order of Elvi and more. Bridge Street became famous in the 1940s when “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” designated it as the shortest street in the world. Arrison came up with the idea for the parade, and it’s now recognized as one of the top St. Patrick’s Day events in the country.

– The Apple Blossom Invitational on April 9 will be followed by the Arkansas Derby on April 10. The Arkansas Derby will be telecast by NBC this year.

– A huge FLW Tour bass tournament will be held May 27-29 on Lake Ouachita with weigh-ins at the Summit Arena.

Like I said, what a spring. Visitors from across the country and around the world will get to know Hot Springs. I love downtown Hot Springs. When I was growing up in Arkadelphia, Hot Springs is where you went to “eat out.” Attending the city’s annual Christmas parade is a cherished childhood memory.

Here’s my major concern: With the exception of the Embassy Suites, the hotels downtown are in dire need of renovations. Don’t get me wrong. I love the Arlington. It’s indeed an Arkansas icon. Sitting in the Arlington lobby or on the porch is still special.

I remember my late uncle would say: “I want to be rich enough one day to sit on the porch at the Arlington all afternoon like those rich guys from Chicago.”

It could stand an update, though. The same goes for many of the other hotels and motels in the city. There have been newer and nicer motels built through the years south on Highway 7 toward Lake Hamilton. But downtown is the historic and cultural heart of Hot Springs. And, apart from the beautiful Embassy Suites next to Summit Arena, a major cash infusion is needed for downtown hotel rooms.

Would Charles Cella consider also getting into the hotel business to have a place to house his patrons? How about Warren Stephens, fresh off the beautiful renovation of Little Rock’s Capital Hotel? Or how about the Belz family of Memphis and Peabody fame?

I enjoy reading the reviews people write on the website www.tripadvisor.com. If you look at the reviews for the downtown facilities in Hot Springs, you will not be encouraged.

The most recent review for the Arlington is headlined “Next to Motel 6, this is the worst hotel experience I’ve had.”

“It’s old, musty and overpriced,” the reviewer wrote. “The whole atmosphere is off. Either the staff is working under very harsh  conditions or they know this place is going to be closed. I can’t see the Arlington continuing like this. … I wouldn’t stay here again unless under extreme circumstances.”

The most recent review for the Velda Rose said: “The pool looked like a crime scene, the toilet kept flushing for 10 minutes after you flushed it, the ice machine didn’t work. I hope I never have to stay there again.”

A reviewer who stayed at the Velda Rose last fall wrote: “I had the pleasure of experiencing the worst hotel in the country. The ceiling leaked, ants everywhere.”

The most recent review for The Springs Hotel & Spa (formerly The Downtowner) is headlined “The Springs would have to pay me to stay there again.”

“The Springs is a sewer trap waiting to flush good people away,” the reviewer said. “I would sleep outside on a vent before I would stay there again.”

The most recent review of the Austin Hotel (which is connected to the Hot Springs Convention Center) said: “The place is on the edge of the ghetto. Even the desk clerk said she would not walk to the historic district from there. Vagrants were living on the steps out back. The restaurant and lounge were closed.”

The most recent review of the Park Hotel on Fountain Street is headlined “Stay far away from the Park Hotel.”

“It was horrible,” the reviewer wrote. “The carpet, bedding and furniture were old. There is a difference between antique and plain old.”

I want the visitors to Arkansas to have a great time. A stay in a bad hotel, though, can sully an entire trip.

The Oaklawn expansion is marvelous. Magic Springs also has expanded in recent years. An additional bathhouse — the Quapaw — is now operating. Arrison is one of the best in the country at what he does.

Here’s my hope: When this recession is over and the economy is seriously improving, someone will invest some significant capital in one or more of the downtown Hot Springs hotels. With proper promotion, I believe that investment would pay off.

Goodness knows, improving those downtown hotels is now the most crying need in Arkansas’ Spa City.

Post to Twitter

Tamale time again

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

This one falls into the shameless self-promotion category: If you happened to miss “On the Tamale Trail” on the Arkansas Educational Television Network when the program first aired back on Dec. 2, it will air again Sunday at 2:30 p.m. on AETN.

NFL football is over, so you have no excuse not to watch. It’s also going to be raining Sunday afternoon so you will not be able to take part in any outdoor activities.

An AETN  crew followed Kane Webb, Bill Vickery and me through Arkansas and Mississippi as we searched for famous tamale joints. We ate at Pasquale’s in Helena-West Helena and Rhoda’s in Lake Village.

The Mississippi stops were at Maria’s in Greenville, Doe’s in Greenville, the White Front in Rosedale, John’s in Cleveland, Hicks’ in Clarksdale and Abe’s in Clarksdale.

Once more, I’m asking for your favorite restaurants, stores or stands to buy tamales. Please let me know in the comment section below.

Here in Little Rock, Doe’s, Arkansas Burger Co., Izzy’s and Terri-Lynn’s all offer tamales. Where else? And which are the best?

Of course, most of the Mexican restaurants have tamale plates. But there’s a difference between Tex-Mex tamales and Delta tamales. We’re talking Delta tamales.

I’ll also again invite you to go to www.tamaletrail.com, which is the Delta Tamale Trail website operated by the Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss.

Join us at 2:30 p.m. Sunday out on the trail.

Post to Twitter

Another Arkansas institution

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

I was excited last year when Roby Brock asked me to take on a new feature for his Talk Business Quarterly magazine that would be known as Arkansas Institutions.

His charge to me was to focus on “things, people, places that make Arkansas what it is — things you need to do or experience to really get your Arkansas bona fides.”

He added, “The list is really endless.”

Indeed. It could be a restaurant. It could be a music venue. It could be a person. It could be an experience — floating the Buffalo River or hunting mallards in the flooded green timber of east Arkansas, for instance.

Here’s how Roby introduced the series in the issue that came out for the third quarter of 2009: “‘That place is an institution!’ You’ve heard that phrase a thousand times through the years. What makes a location or event or experience an institution? It’s a tough question to answer. Maybe it’s a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that you have to experience. It might be a general store on a back road of a rural county where time is frozen still.”

For our first story in the series, I dropped in on Bobby Garner at his Sno-White Grill in Pine Bluff. It was a delightful visit. At the age of 73, Bobby showed no signs of slowing down.

“I checked with my board, and they said Sno-White doesn’t have a retirement plan,” he told me as a sly grin came across his face. Bobby, of course, is the board.

Bobby purchased the Sno-White in February 1970 from Roy Marshall, who had owned the restaurant the previous 27 years. The place has been around since the 1930s.

For the next TBQ issue, I examined three institutions on the same trip to Helena-West Helena: KFFA-AM, 1360; Sonny Payne; and the “King Biscuit Time” radio show. KFFA is a historic broadcast outlet that has served the Delta regions of Arkansas and Mississippi since 1941. It’s the home of “King Biscuit Time,” the longest-running blues show in the world and perhaps the longest-running daily radio show of any tupe in the country.

The first edition of “King Biscuit Time” aired on Nov. 21, 1941. The program still broadcasts each Monday through Friday at 12:15 p.m. with Payne as the host. He has hosted more than 12,000 of the almost 16,000 programs that have aired. You owe it to yourself to drop by the Delta Cultural Center on Cherry Street in Helena-West Helena one day and watch a live broadcast.

For the TBQ edition that came out last week, I focused on Oaklawn Park. How can you not do that at this time of year?

I love visiting Oaklawn, which made this an easy story to compose. I wrote: “The poetry of the track has made Oaklawn an Arkansas institution that has endured for more than a century. Tens of thousands of Arkansans have created fond memories there through the decades. They’ve come not only to bet on horses. They’ve come to eat corned beef sandwiches. They’ve come to walk on the infield on Saturday afternoons once spring has arrived. They’ve come to have a dozen oysters on the half shell at the track’s oyster bar. They’ve come to hear the familiar tone of the track’s veteran announce Terry Wallace, whose voice is as recognizable as any in Arkansas.”

OK, so I just quoted myself. Sorry about that.

But there couldn’t have been better timing for the magazine to come out than last week due to the publicity surrounding the Apple Blossom. First came the distressing news on Wednesday of last week that Rachel Alexandra, the Horse of the Year, would not be ready to face Zenyatta in time for the April 3 Apple Blossom. Oaklawn owner Charles Cella thought he had a deal when he increased the purse for the race from $500,000 to $5 million.

“Getting to this level of fitness after a six-month layoff takes time,” Steve Asmussen, Rachel Alexandra’s trainer, said at the time. “If all goes according to schedule, and we do not have any further weather delays, the earliest we could have a prep race would be the middle of March. It is then not fair to Rachel to ask her to race again three weeks later.”

Cella, however, would not take “no” for an answer.

While sitting in a hospital room with my father on Thursday afternoon of last week, I received an e-mail from Eric Jackson, Oaklawn’s longtime general manager. The news was exciting: The great race was back on. Cella had pushed the race six days down the calendar to Friday, April 9.

“I’ve never had so much trouble giving $5 million away,” Cella told the Daily Racing Form. “We’ve got a solid commitment, assuming, of course, their health continues.”

And so the hotel rooms in Hot Springs are filling up and excitement is building. Oaklawn, a true Arkansas institution, is receiving worldwide publicity.

We’re looking for subjects for future editions. I need your input. What should be featured? I’m looking for restaurants, places, people, events.

Nominations are open. I anxiously await your comments.

Post to Twitter

A winter night at Baptist

Friday, February 12th, 2010

It has been more than a quarter of a century since my paternal grandfather died. This much I remember — I was working at Arkadelphia radio stations KVRC-KDEL when I got the news, and it was snowing and sleeting outside.

Later that week, with snow and ice still covering the ground, I held my grandmother’s arm tightly to make sure she didn’t slip as we walked gingerly through a cemetery in Benton for the graveside service. I always loved my grandfather’s name — Ernest Ezra Nelson. You no longer hear names like that. When he was born late in the 19th century, it wasn’t an uncommon name, I suppose.

Less than a decade later, my first son was born. Again, it was snowing and sleeting. I was the political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette at the time, and things could not have been busier that day. It was Feb. 24, 1993. As political editor, I supervised both the newspaper’s Washington bureau and its state Capitol bureau in Little Rock.

In Washington, Bill Clinton had been in office for exactly five weeks. There seemingly was a fresh controversy/crisis every day during those early weeks of the Clinton administration, and we had three aggressive reporters (Randy Lilleston, Jane Fullerton and Terry Lemons) turning out hundreds of inches of copy each afternoon that I had to edit.

In Little Rock, meanwhile, the Arkansas Legislature was in session, Jim Guy Tucker was still new in the governor’s office and there were at least five of our reporters at the Capitol sending me additional stories to edit. I had planned to work until at least 9 p.m. that day.

At 6:40 p.m., Melissa called from our home in west Little Rock. She was scared. Our son was not scheduled to arrive for another month. But her water had broken while she was exercising, and her doctor had advised her to head to the hospital. So much for our well-laid plans of spending the next month getting ready for the baby.

I told my supervisor, Ray Hobbs, that he would have to edit the remaining stories. I threw on my coat and headed downstairs. As I made the journey west from the newspaper offices downtown to Chenal Parkway, traffic was barely moving on Interstate 630 due to the winter weather. On the exit leading up to Baptist Health Medical Center, there were wrecks. I was nervous, and I was frustrated that it was taking me so long to get home.

I finally made it. Melissa was waiting at the door with a bag in her hand. Our departure was delayed for several minutes when the neighbor’s dachshund charged through the open door into our house. We headed to Baptist after removing the dog, and fortunately the wrecks had been cleared along the way.

Austin Nelson arrived at 2:48 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 25, 1993. Eddie Phillips, the doctor who delivered him, had driven on the slick streets and made it on time. During the wait for Austin to arrive, I remember staring out at the window to watch what weathermen here like to refer to as a “winter weather event.”

Yesterday, I sat in a fifth-floor room at that same Little Rock hospital on another cold February night. I looked out across the beautiful snow-covered hills of west Little Rock and reflected back on that other wintry day 17 years earlier. The task was different this time. Rather than waiting on a new life to enter the world, I was keeping watch over my 85-year-old father, who had been admitted to the hospital that morning with a serious infection and perhaps pneumonia.

My father’s name is Robert. Austin’s middle name is Robert. As I listened to my father’s labored breathing and thought about my son doing homework a few miles away at home, the winter night in 1993 and this winter night in 2010 seemed tied together in a strange way. Then, my thoughts went back do the winter day I heard my grandfather had died.

As had my grandfather in the years before his death, my father suffers from dementia. I wonder on this long night at the hospital if that will be my fate. And I wonder if when I am old and sick and in the hospital, one of my two sons will be sitting there — reading, watching, looking out the window, thinking of those who came before them.

My dad turned 65 on the day Melissa and I were married. He was healthy back then – still working, quail hunting, bass fishing, cooking for us on his grill. We surprised him with a birthday cake at the rehearsal dinner the night before the wedding, and everyone sang to him.

Two decades take their toll.

So as I wait for the Thursday night snow that will never arrive (which is fine; Monday’s seven inches were quite enough), I think of those rare days when there is snow on the ground in Arkansas — the day my grandfather was buried, the night my first son was born and this night of helping care for my father.

It’s the middle of February, it’s dark and I’m thinking about four generations of Nelson males — Ernest, Robert, Rex and Austin — as the various medical devices grind and click in the background. Suddenly, I’m very cold. I reach for a blanket and attempt to grab a few minutes of sleep.

Post to Twitter

Geaux

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

When the Indianapolis Colts returned home from their loss in the Super Bowl at Miami, there were 11 people at the airport to greet them.

Eleven.

Heck, the Minnesota Vikings had more people than that in their huddle near the end of the NFC championship game against New Orleans.

According to a story in The Indianapolis Star, “Each plane’s arrival was a little different than the arrival of a scheduled flight at the main terminal across the airfield. The planes rolled onto the ramp, and the passengers trudged down air stairs and onto waiting buses, while crews unloaded equipment into rental trucks. The buses left the ramp without a word from anyone on the team. The closest any of the 11 fans got to the Colts was the other side of a security fence several hundred feet away.”

I realize it was cold in Indianapolis on Monday afternoon. I realize there was snow.

Still. . .

Even had the Saints lost to the Colts in the Super Bowl, I can assure you there would have been thousands of fans at the airport to greet the team. Perhaps it’s the difference between Southern passion and Midwestern reserve. It’s the difference between a bowl of gumbo with plenty of Tabasco sauce and a slice of Indiana pork loin with just a little pepper.

In New Orleans on Monday, there were an estimated 20,000 people present when the team landed at Louis Armstrong International Airport. Fans ran alongside Coach Sean Payton’s Mercedes-Benz as he lifted the Vince Lombardi Trophy through the sunroof.

The Times-Picayune described it this way: “As they do after every away game, throngs of fans met the Saints at the airport, a tradition that is unique among National Football League teams. Members of the Saints organization line up their cars in a caravan and drive past a mile of screaming fans. On Monday, fans were five and six deep for most of the route.”

On a cold Tuesday night, I sat on my couch at home and listened to WWL-AM, 870, as the Saints held the largest parade ever for a Super Bowl champion. It’s estimated that between 500,000 and 800,000 people showed up for the parade. That dwarfs the estimated crowd of 350,000 people who attended a similar parade last year in Pittsburgh.

In a town accustomed to huge crowds for Carnival parades each year, parade organizer Barry Kern said, “It was more people than we ever had downtown.”

The crowds were as deep as 40 people at major intersections along the 3.7-mile route. All of the area’s major krewes — Bacchus, Rex (my favorite for some reason), Zulu, Endymion, Caesar, Alla, Tucks, Babylon, Orpheus, Muses  and others — provided floats.

According to a Times-Picayune story, “The crowds were as large as any Carnival parade has seen; the traffic leading up to the parade was worse. An hour before the parade, major highways leading into town were backed up into Jefferson Parish, and city streets were impassable. Fans hoping to catch a ride across the river on the ferry had to be patient — very patient. Lines were at least an hour long at the Algiers terminal, and some people were told they might wait three hours for a boat.

“In fact, it was so crowded downtown that outlying areas were empty. As the parade rolled at 5 p.m., parts of Metairie were as empty as they’d normally be on a Sunday morning. Supermarkets were nearly empty. … The parade made Tuesday a quasi-holiday in and around the city — the second in a row. After celebrating late into the night Sunday, many residents in the metro area took Monday off; some schools reported attendance was down by nearly half. On Tuesday, many businesses shut down early — both so that their employees could get home, or so that they could get to the parade.”

Next Tuesday is Fat Tuesday. Yesterday was known in New Orleans as Dat Tuesday and Lombardi Gras.

It has now become trite to write that for New Orleans, having the Saints win the Super Bowl is something that transcends sports. But never has that cliche been more true. As those who read this blog on a regular basis know, I love New Orleans and its people. My honeymoon was there. My family was on vacation there just two weeks before Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Many business trips have been taken there since the storm.

A Times-Picayune editorial put it this way: “Building an NFL championship team is a gargantuan undertaking. It requires vision and resources, the right mix of talent, serendipity and a dedication to be the best. Thirty-two franchises try every year, as the Saints had done unsuccessfully for more than four decades. But those past failures, monumental at times, are forever redeemed. … Metro residents resolved to rebuild better after the storm and we remain a work in progress. But the Saints’ success at reinventing themselves shows we can do it.

“The Saints have given more than a little bit of something to everybody already. They’ve given us a sense of hope and of civic pride, putting New Orleans in the national and international spotlight as victors rather than victims. They’ve given us an example of how to build a team, aim for a goal and work together. They’ve unified us as citizens of the Who Dat nation. All of that, taken together, can help us in the job of rebuilding this great place we all love. Maybe it’s not possible to maintain the pitch of delirium we’re feeling now, but our heightened hope in the future can and must remain.”

As if it weren’t enough to have the Super Bowl and a number of Carnival parades on the same weekend, New Orleans residents also elected a new mayor Saturday. Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who had lost two earlier campaigns for the office his father held from 1970-78, won with 65 percent of the vote.

He will be the city’s first white mayor since his father left office. In a city so often divided along racial lines, it’s encouraging that Mitch Landrieu had heavy suport among both black and white voters. Having blacks and whites on the same page politically is just as historic for the Crescent City as the Saints winning the Super Bowl.

One of my favorite New Orleans writers is Errol Laborde, who holds a doctorate in political science from the University of New Orleans and is the editor of New Orleans magazine and Louisiana Life magazine. Laborde believes last weekend may have been the best in the city’s long, colorful, sometimes tragic history.

“Since the founding of New Orleans by Jean Baptiste La Moyne Sieur de Bienville in 1718, the city has experienced approximately 15,184 weekends,” he wrote Monday. “Of those, this past weekend was surely the best. During a 48-hour period, New Orleanians elected a new mayor and then watched their Saints win the Super Bowl, all happening with the backdrop of Carnival.

“Most significant about Mitch Landrieu’s overwhelming mayoral election is that it showed a city that is politically united. Despite the ministers, commentators and old-school politicians who have tried to stir up race as a means of clinging to power, the voters knew better. This weekend black voters and white voters were united behind common issues. They settled for the same candidate whose win was so lopsided that it left those who would divide the city like the Indianapolis Colts stopped near the goal line as time runs out. Because of the Super Bowl, the election did not get the attention it deserved, but it spoke volumes of New Orleans’ maturity as a city.”

In the days after Hurricane Katrina, I shed many tears as I watched the television coverage, fearing that we had lost New Orleans for all practical purposes as a great American city.

There’s a lot of hard work still ahead. But with a new mayor and citizens who feel good about themselves thanks to the Saints, there’s now hope. Listening each night to WWL radio from icy Arkansas, it has been a glorious past few days.

Post to Twitter

Hot Stove

Friday, February 5th, 2010

The ice storm came a few days early this year.

The Arkansas Travelers held their annual hot stove meeting Tuesday night in North Little Rock. When the Travelers host the hot stove gathering, it’s usually a recipe for either winter weather or, as was the case two years ago, tornadoes.

My friend Mike Dugan, who knows as much about the sport of baseball and its history as anyone I’ve met, always drives up from Hot Springs for the hot stove meeting. He can tell some horror stories of sliding back to Hot Springs on slick roads following these winter gatherings in years past.

It was a bit chilly this year, but otherwise the weather was fine. The term “hot stove” often is used in baseball lingo to refer to offseason activities. The daily offseason show of record on the MLB Network is titled “Hot Stove,” in fact.

Having attended this event for the past 20 years, I can never remember a larger crowd for a Travelers hot stove meeting. There has been a renewal of interest in minor league baseball nationwide in recent years. And rather than having fan interest drop off significantly after the first season of playing games at Dickey-Stephens Park, interest in the Travelers seems at an all-time high as they prepare to play their fourth season there.

I have great memories of that first Dickey-Stephens game on the evening of Thursday, April 12, 2007. Walking around the ballpark, you could tell this was a place where virtually everything had been done correctly. For once, the architects had listened to the baseball people. You knew attendance would be high that season. People would come simply because they wanted to check out a new facility. But they kept coming in 2008 and 2009. I expect good crowds again this year.

Travelers fans might be interested in knowing that there’s an informative blog called Travs and Such, which can be found at www.travsandsuch.blogspot.com. Here’s what that blog had to say about Tuesday’s event at the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce: “For what is essentially a non-event, I sure do look forward to the hot stove every year. Look, the hot stove is basically hot dogs, beer, some giveaways, the usual smoke being blown about the organization and how they love their affiliates, the Travs staff and a roomful of people who care way too much about baseball. There is nothing going on worth the effort it takes to get out on a cold February night. Yet there I was, in a standing-room-only crowd, dreaming of April evenings at the ballpark.”

Yes, we were all dreaming of April. The older I get, the less tolerant I become of winter. I realize there are still several weeks of winter staring us in the face (it appears as if it will be cold all of next week). But we can dream.

The Travelers open the season on April 8 in Midland. The home opener is Thursday, April 15, also against Midland. Those wanting to buy season tickets can call 664-1555.

Once again this year, all of the Travelers games will be on KARN-AM, 920, their traditional home back in the days when Jim Elder did homes games and re-created the road games from a Little Rock studio. For a number of years, there was no coverage at all of Trav road games, making them one of the few AA teams not to broadcast games on the road. The Travs finally moved into the 20th century early in the 21st century when Phil Elson was hired in 2001 as the club’s first full-time broadcaster.

Luckily for Arkansas fans, Elson, now 33, found a home and decided to stick around for the past decade. Continuity is a good thing — and a rare thing — in minor league baseball. Elson recently was named the Arkansas Sportscaster of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Assocation. For much of the past decade, Elson’s broadcasts were bounced from station to station, sometimes on signals that were even hard to pick up at night at my home near Foxwood. So it’s good to have the Travelers on KARN’s 5,000-watt AM signal for a second consecutive season.

By the way, I may take off work on May 11. The Travelers and the Springdale Cardinals play an 11 a.m. game that day. At 7 p.m. the same day, the University of Arkansas baseball team will take on Louisiana Tech. Thus in its fourth season, Dickey-Stephens Park will host its first day-night doubleheader — one professional game and one college game. It should be fun.

With football ending Sunday (Geaux Saints!), spring cannot get here soon enough. I have the winter blues. The cure is to remind myself that pitchers and catchers report later this month.

Post to Twitter

Thanks, Mr. Cella

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Charles Cella has done it again.

The owner of Oaklawn Park knows how to do things in a big way while earning media exposure in the process. As I’m sure you’ve heard, Cella announced today that Oaklawn Park will increase the purse of the Apple Blossom on April 3 from $500,000 to $5 million if both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta will show up to race.

If it happens, it will bring one of the most anticipated races in years to Hot Springs. It also will be the largest purse for a filly and mare race in the history of North American thoroughbred racing. National media attention will be focused on Arkansas for days leading up to the race.

Cella, of course, is the man who invented the Racing Festival of the South back in 1974. The festival includes a stakes race a day on the final seven days of racing each year, ending with the Arkansas Derby.

Today’s announcement reminded me of the one Cella made in 2004 when he stated that any horse that could sweep the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby would win a bonus of $5 million in celebration of Oaklawn’s centennial year.

Along came Smarty Jones.

“In 1904, my grandfather had given $50,000 to the winner of a handicap in honor of the St. Louis World’s Fair,” Cella once told me. “I multiplied $50,000 by 100 and came up with $5 million. I didn’t realize at the time that the whole thing would play out like a Hollywood script. As it turned out, that money was the best investment I ever made. You could not have drawn it up any better. Due to all the publicity Smarty Jones received, other trainers began giving Oaklawn a closer look.”

Chad Garrison later wrote in the St. Louis Business Journal: “Charles Cella may be the only person in the world who could make a $5 million bet, lose the bet and feel good about it.”

After Smarty Jones won the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby, Cella began negotiating with his insurer, Lavin Insurance of Goshen, Ky. Cella had insured the first $2.5 million with Lavin. It was just two days prior to the Kentucky Derby before Lavin insured the remaining $2.5 million.

The $5.8 million Smarty Jones won at the Kentucky Derby was the most ever paid to a horse for one race. At Oaklawn, more than 7,000 people showed up that first Saturday in May just to watch the simulcast.

Insurance underwriters likely insured the first $2.5 million in 2004 based on the fact that only one horse (Sunny’s Halo in 1983) had won all three races since the Rebel began in 1961. With the chances of winning less than 1 in 40, a premium of less than 10 percent of the bonus probably was required. Smarty Jones went into the Kentucky Derby with 4-to-1 odds, meaning that the premium on the second $2.5 million likely was 25 percent or more.

Smarty Jones went on the win the Preakness, becoming the most famous 3-year-old in years and capturing the hearts of Americans who had never before followed racing.

A year later, Arkansas Derby winner Afleet Alex won the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. Suddenly, the racing world was noticing that the previous two Arkansas Derby winners had captured four of six Triple Crown races.

The run of success continued in 2007 after Curlin won the Arkansas Derby. After finishing third in the Kentucky Derby, Curlin won the Preakness and finished second in the Belmont. He would go on to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park and the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Monmouth Park en route to being named the Eclipse Award Horse of the Year.

Now, we face the tantalizing prospect of Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra dueling at Oaklawn. Rachel Alexandra won the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year as a 3-year-old filly. Zenyatta was the runner-up as a 5-year-old mare. Oaklawn is neutral territory between Rachel Alexandra’s winter base in New Orleans and Zenyatta’s base in California. Owner Jess Jackson will not run Rachel Alexandra on a synthetic surface. But he will run on Oaklawn’s dirt track. Santa Anita has a synthetic track, which is why Rachel Alexandra did not take on Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita last October.

Both horses have experienced success at Oaklawn. Zenyatta had her first Grade 1 stakes victory in the Apple Blossom in 2008 in her only start outside of California that year. She is now undefeated in 14 races. Many thought last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic would be the final race of her career. Fortunately, it was announced on Jan. 16 that she will race again.

Last year, Rachel Alexandra won the Martha Washington and the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn. She had a record victory in the Kentucky Oaks in Louisville the day before the Kentucky Derby and then became the first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years. Also last year, she won the Haskell and the Woodward.

Cella said at today’s news conference: “We have always pursued a goal of bringing the world’s best racing to Arkansas. That is what led us to create the Racing Festival of the South more than 30 years ago. We have been even more fortunate in recent years.”

He says Oaklawn has been “fortunate.” I believe you make your luck. Cella, his sons, general manager Eric Jackson and the others at Oaklawn are making big things happen in Hot Springs on a regular basis.

Cella, who was once a nationally ranked squash player, told me a couple of years ago: “In all sports, the satisfaction comes from knowing how hard you have worked and how well you have prepared. If you lose but are fully spent at the end, that’s OK. When you win, that’s lagniappe.”

I’m ready for some lagniappe on April 3.

Post to Twitter