Archive for April, 2015

The retirement state

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

It was 1948 and World War II veterans were starting families and buying homes after having attended college on the G.I. Bill.

In the flat cotton country of east Arkansas, a West Memphis businessman named John A. Cooper Sr. had an idea.

Cooper looked to the west — to the Ozark foothills to be exact — and purchased 400 acres near where Otter Creek runs into the Spring River. At first, he used his Otter Creek Ranch as a family retreat. But Cooper had a bigger plan in mind. He began to buy up other land in Sharp and Fulton counties, and in 1953 he formed the Cherokee Village Development Co. with the idea of selling lots to people in Midwestern states such as Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Gov. Orval Faubus attended the dedication of Cherokee Village in June 1955 (it was Faubus’ first year in office) and declared it to be the “coming mecca of the Ozarks.”

Cooper eventually built two golf courses, seven lakes, 350 miles of roads, a water system and three recreation centers.

“Less than 10 years after the town’s founding, Cherokee Village had grown so much that additional land was necessary to satisfy the demand for new homes,” Wayne Dowdy of Memphis writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “However, adjoining land was occupied by the Memphis Boy Scout Council’s summer camp, Kia Kima. In 1964, Cooper approached the Boy Scouts and offered to give them a larger tract of land on the South Fork of the Spring River in exchange for their property. The Memphis youth organization relented after Cooper agreed to construct several new buildings on the Boy Scouts’ new property. The Kia Kima trade and other land purchases expanded Cherokee Village to 13,500 acres by 1980.”

Dowdy writes that the development of Cherokee Village “had a profound impact on Arkansas. The retirement community industry became an integral part of the state’s economy as the older Americans who flocked to Cherokee Village transformed the state into one of the most innovative and popular retirement destinations in the United States.”

In the 1960s, Cooper set his sights on Bella Vista in northwest Arkansas, which had a long history as a resort.

John Spurgeon writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “William S. Baker, a Benton County Presbyterian minister, and his wife Mary decided in 1915 to develop a summer recreation area in Benton County. Damming Sugar Creek created a large lake suitable for swimming. The Bakers’ plans called for adjacent tennis courts, golf links and nearly 400 lots selling at $100 each. A contest was used to select the resort’s name with the winning entry being Bella Vista. Business was not lucrative, however, and by 1917 the resort was offered for sale.

“Samuel and Mary Linebarger and their three sons moved in 1900 to Bentonville for a change in climate following Mary’s diagnosis with tuberculosis. After she died two years later, the family left Arkansas. The Linebarger Brothers Realty Co., founded by Samuel’s three sons, returned to purchase Bella Vista along with adjoining acreage, seeking a new investment. Initial expansion plans called for a pavilion suitable for dancing, a 30-room lodge and a dining hall. A nine-hole golf course was added in 1922, a large swimming pool in 1924 and the 65-room Sunset Hotel in 1929. In 1930, the brothers developed a cave into a nightclub, calling it Wonderland.

“The resort retained the Bella Vista name and opened from June to Labor Day, renting rooms by the day or the week, selling lots and building cottages. Bella Vista amenities included swimming, golf, tennis, fishing, camping, horse rides, rowing, games and dances with orchestral music. The Linebargers catered to wealthy, urban families who could spend the entire summer on vacation. Under the leadership of Clarence A. Linebarger, the youngest Linebarger brother, summer business progressively improved. The Great Depression, World War II and changing vacation concepts — with automobiles and highways allowing people to venture to new and distant places — resulted in the resort’s decline.

“Elzy Lloyd Keith, who operated the Lake Keith Resort in Cave Springs, purchased Bella Vista in 1952, billing it as ‘Bella Vista the Family Resort, the Beauty Spot of the Ozarks.’ Keith transitioned Bella Vista into a family resort, substituting roller skating for dancing, and added a restaurant, grocery and motel. … Keith closed the Sunset Hotel after one year, giving it to a Baptist minister to start a school. Within five years, the school also closed.”

Cooper moved in, quickly buying up land and dividing it into lots. During the next 35 years, more than 37,000 lots were sold. Almost 13,000 of them have been developed. A study in 1987 showed that 16.5 percent of all Benton County tax revenues and 45 percent of the property tax revenues for the Bentonville School District were coming from Bella Vista. The Bank of Bentonville reported in 1992 that 34 percent of its deposits came from Bella Vista residents.

The population of Bella Vista soared from 2,589 in the 1980 census to 9,093 in the 1990 census to 16,582 in the 2000 census to 26,461 in the 2010 census.

On Nov. 7, 2006, residents voted by a two-to-one margin to incorporate it as Arkansas’ newest city. With the explosive growth of northwest Arkansas, Bella Vista can no longer be considered a retirement community. It’s instead a growing municipality.

In 1970, Cooper set his sights on southwest Arkansas as he began to develop a 20,000-acre tract in Saline and Garland counties into Hot Springs Village.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture notes: “Cooper had been approached separately by two people with the idea of creating a retirement community, state Sen. Bud Canada and Peter D. Joers, the president of the Dierks Coal & Lumber Co. After touring the property by air, Cooper realized the potential of the land and immediately bought 20,000 acres from Dierks Forests Inc. His plan was to create a peaceful retirement community in a natural setting that would offer all modern-day conveniences without the hassle of living in an urbanized city. Unlike his other two communities, Hot Springs Village was created as a gated community in order to provide security for its residents and as an experiment to see if the gated community would result in more residents than the non-gated communities.”

The population grew from 2,083 in 1980 to 6,361 in 1990 to 8,397 in 2000 to 12,807 in 2010.

There were smaller retirement communities in the Arkansas hills built by developers other than Cooper.

Horseshoe Bend — located in parts of Izard, Sharp and Fulton counties — was developed along the Strawberry River.

“In the late 1950s, Bill and Dick Pratt sold 200 acres of land to a group of developers from Texas,” writes Steven Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “The brothers — businessmen from Little Rock and Newport respectively — had purchased abandoned land for a retirement community. The Texas developers began selling lots, but they then defaulted on their business loans, and the Pratts regained control of the community. Purchasing additional land, they continued selling lots, as well as creating streets and utilities for the new houses. Where the woods reportedly once hid a whiskey still, an airport was built.

“Creeks that flowed into the Strawberry River were dammed to create several lakes. Cedar Glade Lake failed to fill with water as was intended; engineers discovered that the water was emptying into a previously unknown cave. They spent more than $100,000 plugging holes in the bottom of the lakebed. … A feature called Gobbler’s Knob, frequented by local hunters, was converted into the Turkey Mountain Golf Course. Construction began in 1961, and the first nine holes were open to the public in 1963; the remaining nine holes were finished in 1971.

“The Pratts employed a sales team that at one time had 100 employees. In all, they created 56 subdivisions on 14,000 acres, and by 1974, they had sold 12,000 lots. Many of the houses were prefabricated. More than half of the new residents were from Illinois (which accounted for a quarter of the residents), Missouri, Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin. The city was incorporated in 1969, creating a city government and a police force, as well as guaranteeing oversight of the city’s utilities. Various new churches were formed, including Lutheran, Episcopal and Roman Catholic. Each was the first of its denomination in Izard County.”

A film and television producer named Albert Gannaway came to town in the late 1960s with the idea of creating a theme park to be known as Ozarkland. A replica frontier homestead at Ozarkland was to be the set for a televised music program known as “Ozarkland Jamboree.” The park and the television program were both financial failures. East Arkansas music promoter and developer Gene Williams bought Ozarkland in the early 1970s with the idea of creating an amusement park to be called Frontierland. That effort also failed.

“In spite of these failures, the development of Horseshoe Bend provided jobs for residents of the area,” Teske writes. “Retired farmers and business professionals opened shops and restaurants, and roughly half the sales staff of the development hailed from Arkansas. Construction jobs also employed workers whose previous income from farming had been considerably less. Not only did Horseshoe Bend bring the first golf course and first public swimming pool into the region, it also introduced the first Kiwanis Club and the first legal drinking establishments.”

The Pratts decided to sell their holdings in 1974 to a group known as Gulf South Advisors. It turned out to be a corporation involved in questionable activities. Millions of dollars intended for the further development of Horseshoe Bend were lost. A lengthy bankruptcy case put a halt to growth. Former salesmen for the Pratts became independent real estate agents, and a municipal improvement district took over the golf course and lakes.

Meanwhile, just north of Eureka Springs along Table Rock Lake, Robert McCulloch (a Missouri entrepreneur known for McCulloch chainsaws and for purchasing the London Bridge and reassembling it in Arizona) began work on a 4,500-acre retirement community known as Holiday Island in 1970.

“The developers donated one acre of land to Grace Lutheran Church, which was formed in 1972 by 26 Lutherans,” Teske writes. “A Presbyterian church was formed in Holiday Island in the 1990s. There are also two Baptist churches and a community church. In addition to building homes, the developers created two golf courses, a marina, a shopping center and a recreation center. … The area also has two assisted living facilities, a campground and motels and rental properties.”

In Van Buren and Cleburne counties, three Fort Smith businessmen — Randolph Warner, Neal Simonson and George Jacobus — decided in the early 1960s to buy land on the north shore of what would become Greers Ferry Lake for a retirement community.

“They hired a retired cotton broker named C.M. Owen to find a suitable location,” James White writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In his Jeep, Owen followed the logging roads to a high point overlooking the green valley that was being filled to form the lake. A new corporation — Fairfield Communities Land Co. — formed by Jacobus, Simonson and Warner (later to become Fairfield Communities Inc.) began the purchase of land from the Nebraska Tie & Lumber Co., which owned the timberlands on the north shore of the lake. By 1965, the first 3,500 acres had been purchased by Jacobus and his partners. Lots were sold, and the price included a small annual amenities fee for the recreation facilities.

“All early activities centered near the marina, which was built in 1966. In 1967, more than 300 mobile homes were brought in to house the prospective lot buyers. The Wild Boar restaurant was built in 1967 on Highway 330. The second floor of this restaurant became the offices of FCI. The Civic Center building was built in 1972 and was where many of the social and community meetings were held. … Before and after the Wild Board restaurant burned in early 1980, the FCI offices and other businesses began moving to the present Indian Hills Country Club and the mall area.”

In addition to selling lots, the company began pushing timeshares in vacation homes in 1979. By 2006, about 7,800 lots had been sold (only 1,200 of them have houses on them). The number of residents was about 2,400, but there were an estimated 20,000 annual timeshare visitors. FCI later filed for bankruptcy, and the property owners association known as the Community Club assumed control. The city of Fairfield Bay was incorporated in 1993.

The development of these retirement communities established Arkansas as one of the most important retirement destinations in the country. Cooper, who was born at Earle in 1906 and received a law degree from the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., had a keen understanding of people who had been raised poor during the Great Depression before climbing into the middle class. He guessed correctly that some of them would want to retire in places where the cost of living was low and the winters weren’t as harsh.

The 1960s and 1970s were the boom period. Arkansas retirement developments advertised free vacations in markets across the Midwest. Couples would come to the state and spend a few days enjoying the amenities in exchange for participating in a “tour” with a real estate agent that was actually an intense sales pitch like something out of the David Mamet play “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Male high school teachers and coaches often would spend their summers as salesmen. The good ones could earn more money in three months of selling lots than they had earned in nine months of teaching.

The problem for the rural Arkansas retirement communities (Bella Vista is an exception since it’s now part of an urban area) is that the Baby Boomers are different from their parents. Fewer of them want to live by a golf course in a rural area during their retirement years. They tend to prefer urban areas with amenities such as fine dining, live theater, symphony orchestras and sports events.

College towns also have proved to be popular retirement spots due to the number of events they offer.

In our next installment, we’ll take a look at how these Arkansas retirement communities are now trying to reinvent themselves.

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The Spa City bucket list

Monday, April 6th, 2015

My friend David Bazzel of KABZ-FM, 103.7 The Buzz, in Little Rock will spend three nights in Hot Springs this week as the Racing Festival of the South takes place at Oaklawn Park.

David asked me to come up with the ultimate Spa City bucket list of things he should do.

A day at Oaklawn, complete with corned beef and oysters on the half shell, is already a given. There’s not going to be time to do everything on this list, but here’s my best shot:

1. Get a bath and massage at the Buckstaff for a classic bathhouse experience, and then have a bath and massage a day later at the beautifully renovated Quapaw.

2. Hang out in the Arlington Hotel lobby on Friday or Saturday night, listen to the live music and watch the couples dance.

3. Have lunch at the Superior Bathhouse in a window seat, which allows you to watch the people walking along Bathhouse Row.

4. Pay a visit downtown to the Gangster Museum, the wax museum in the old Southern Club and Maxwell Blade’s new museum of oddities. The mix of low-brow and high-brow attractions has always been part of the charm of Hot Springs. I still miss the auction houses.

5. Have breakfast one morning at The Pancake Shop and breakfast the next morning at the Colonial. Both are downtown. Make sure to buy the Daily Racing Form in the basement of the Arlington before breakfast so you can mark your selections while waiting on the food.

6. Take a slow walk after breakfast along the Grand Promenade.

7. Play tourist to the hilt and ride one of the amphibious Ducks.

8. Visit the Arkansas Alligator Farm, one of the state’s oldest tourist attractions.

9. Make multiple stops along the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail, read the markers and listen to the narration on your smart phone.

10. Hot Springs is among the top barbecue cities in the South. Visit one or more of the following: McClard’s, Stubby’s, Smokin’ In Style, Mickey’s.

11. Hot Springs also is one of the best pizza cities in the South. Visit one or more of the following: Deluca’s, Rod’s, Rocky’s.

12. Drop by the Ohio Club and Maxine’s, two historic watering holes downtown. Catch some live music at those venues.

13. Take a hike along the creek at Gulpha Gorge.

14. Visit as many of the art galleries as possible along Central Avenue. Also drop by All Things Arkansas for Arkansas-made products.

15. Take a trip out to the Mid-America Science Museum, which recently reopened following a multimillion-dollar upgrade.

16. View the wonderful collection of old photos in the lobby of the Hot Springs Convention Center.

17. While walking along Bathhouse Row, see the historic displays in the Fordyce, the art in the Ozark and the items for sale in the Lamar.

18. Go to Garvan Woodland Gardens while the tulips are still blooming.

19. Hot Springs still has some old dairy bars. Pay a visit to King Cone, Bailey’s and the Fros-T-Treat.

20. Go to the top of the Hot Springs Mountain Tower.

That’s a start.

What else should be on the list?

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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.

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