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Another Arkansas institution

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.

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