In a feature story on Oaklawn Park in The New York Times last April, the newspaper’s superb racing writer, Joe Drape, had this to say: “The Cellas have owned this charming racetrack for nearly 100 years, and their focus on quality horse racing has earned it the reputation as the Saratoga of the South. … Horse racing still rules here and is the reason that the owners and trainers of Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Curlin chose to prepare their colts here for the Kentucky Derby and beyond. In 2004, Smarty Jones used the Arkansas Derby as a springboard to a near miss of the Triple Crown when Birdstone caught him in the stretch of the Belmont Stakes.”
Drape, an author of several books who has attended the Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock before, makes no secret of the fact that he loves Oaklawn. So do some of the biggest names in racing.
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas told him: “It’s a great, great racing town, and if you don’t believe me, just walk into a diner or restaurant and see how many people are looking at the Daily Racing Form. I have folks stop me all the time and ask me about the great horses I’ve had and tell me about the good ones that are at the track right now. There’s not many places left where people adore the sport.”
Trainer Larry Jones told him: “They keep the surface in very good shape, and it is about as close to mimicking Churchill Downs’ oval as you’ll find. You can’t beat the air here, either. It’s fresh and clear and makes you feel like you’re in the country. Mostly, though, it’s because they have good purses, which brings in good horses.”
I visited briefly with jockey Corey Nakatani on Wednesday night, and he confirmed that the racing surface once more is in great shape.
Here’s the recipe: A resort town where the fans adore racing. A track owned by a family that also adores racing. Good purses. Leading horses and jockeys.
Oaklawn, after its struggles of the 1990s, has entered another golden age.
“The racetrack continues to offer novel promotions,” Drape wrote. “It went through six tons of corned beef on opening day when corned beef sandwiches sold for 50 cents and Cokes cost a dime. But just like Saratoga Springs in August, Hot Springs brings in knowledgeable horse enthusiasts.”
Terry Wallace came to Oaklawn in 1975 as the track announcer and has never missed calling a live race at Oaklawn. Not once. That’s a streak of almost 20,000 races.
“I think it’s the most incredible record in sports,”Charles Cella once told me.”This record will never be touched. I can’t imagine anyone will come close.”
Consider the fact that Cella was just 38 years old when Wallace came to Oaklawn. He had run the track for only seven years at that point following the unexpected 1968 death of his father, John G. Cella. For racing fans in Arkansas, the constants at Oaklawn have been Cella as the owner, Eric Jackson as the general manager and Wallace as the track announcer.
“It’s hard to narrow down my most memorable day at the track,” Wallace says. “It usually comes down to meeting the people who I have admired for a long time. I’ve met Carol Channing, Stan Musial, D. Wayne Lukas, Laz Barrera, Pat Day and hundreds of others who have made my life all the richer and more exciting.
“I’m not a Hot Springs native. I was born in Cleveland and only came here in 1975 when I was hired to be the announcer. I did get lost when I was coming here from New Orleans, where I was working at the time. Once I got to Hot Spring County, I thought I was at my destination. What a shock to find out that Hot Springs was not in Hot Spring County. It took me an entire afternoon of driving around Hot Spring County to find out that little secret.”
This is an era of corporate ownership in thoroughbred racing. Magna Entertainment Corp., which filed last year for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, operates seven thoroughbred tracks, including Santa Anita, Gulfstream and Pimlico. It also operates Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie, Texas, which runs both thoroughbred and standardbred meetings.
Churchill Downs Inc. operates — in addition to its namesake track in Louisville — Calder in Miami, Arlington Park in the Chicago area and the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Louisiana Downs in Bossier City is operated by Harrah’s, the casino company. Oaklawn goes against the grain.
“It’s nice to work for a family that’s dedicated to racing and has been for more than 100 years,” Wallace says of the Cella family, which owns only one track. “A lot of these other companies are focused on the gaming aspect. The Cellas, though, are committed to the quality of racing. We’re not publicly held so we can be a little different. At the same time, we realize we won the election that authorized expanded electronic gaming by only 90 votes. So we can’t afford to fumble the ball. This is a small town. You have to honor your promises to the community and be straightforward with people.”
As another live race meet begins today, Eric Jackson has a hard time singling out favorites.
The favorite thoroughbred he has seen compete at Oaklawn?
“My problem is I love animals. So I get attached to all of them. Smarty Jones and Rachel Alexandra have a special place in my heart. But my day-in/day-out favorite may well have been Chindi.”
Favorite owner and trainer? There are many. But some rate special mentions.
“The one-time football coach and then successful businessman Hays Biggs was my kind of guy (as an owner) — a true standup, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy. I think the world of Bob Holthus (as a trainer) and would hate to count how many times I’ve gone to him for advice and counsel and direction.”
“Larry Snyder. Never say him quit trying. Never heard him complain. One of the straightest shooters and fairest people I have ever met.”
Beginning today, more memories will be made. Oaklawn is a shining star in a sport that’s otherwise struggling. Should we ever lose racing and the colorful people who follow it, we’ll lose an important part of the American culture.
I’m drawn to Ted McClelland’s description of Hawthorne Race Course near Chicago. In his delightful book “Horseplayers: Life At The Track,” McClelland has a description of a place that could pass for other American tracks.
“In the grandstand, the grill sold fried chicken, collard greens and peach cobbler,” he wrote. “The cigarette smoke was not as heavy as it had been years ago, when it clouded as thickly as mustard gas on the Western Front and soaked into clothing, skin and the newsprint of my Racing Form. But there were still afternoons when sheer gray scarves floated beneath the ceiling. Over by the barbershop, old men threw spades and bid whist across a scarred tabletop. In the carrels facing the television monitors, which showed races from all across the country, you’d find find baskets full of chicken bones and discarded tickets from Aqueduct, Calder, Laurel, Turfway and the Fair Grounds. The pleas of the gamblers, some sacred, some profane, were as loud as the barking of brokers at the Mercantile Exchange.”
The track. What a place.