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Eric Jackson's journey

I met Eric Jackson in the winter of 1979. I was a college student at the time. I was also sports editor of the Daily Siftings Herald at Arkadelphia. That meant I could spend race days at Oaklawn Park in the press box.

That was a dream assignment for a 19-year-old aspiring journalist from just down the road.

I grew up loving thoroughbred racing. I remember being glued to the television set at home in 1973 as Secretariat won all three legs of the Triple Crown. Six years later, I was hanging out high above the grandstand at Oaklawn each Saturday with the likes of Randy Moss of the Arkansas Gazette, Wally Hall of the Arkansas Democrat, Harry King of The Associated Press and Jim Elder of KARN-AM.

Jackson, who became Oaklawn's director of operations in 1978, treated me as equal to Little Rock members of the media. We became friends, and no trip to Oaklawn was complete without a stop by his office to visit. I always learned something from this Hot Springs native, who had studied economics at Hendrix College in Conway.

By 1982, I was covering Oaklawn every day of the race meet for the Arkansas Democrat.

Even after I left sports writing, Jackson would see to it that I received an Arkansas Derby tie (which Oaklawn owner Charles Cella had made of pure silk in Italy) each year. I have a collection of those ties dating back four decades and wore one of them last Friday when Jackson was among four people inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.

In April, Jackson will achieve a rare daily double, to borrow a racing term, as he's also inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Jackson met his wife Lynda at Hendrix. She then earned a master's degree at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and Eric was set to go to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., to also earn an advanced degree. He never made it.

While playing tennis one day, he struck up a conversation with legendary Oaklawn general manager W.T. Bishop, who offered him a job.

"I told him I didn't know anything about horse racing, but he explained that most everybody starts out at that point," Jackson says. "He suggested I try it for six months and see if I liked it."

Jackson, 73, was director of operations from 1978-87 when Bishop died. Bishop had taken over in July 1972 from the equally legendary J. Sweeney Grant following Grant's death. Grant had been general manger since 1954.

Jackson was named general manager following Bishop's death and served in that role until March 2017, when he was named senior vice president. He has been on Oaklawn's board since 1994.

I don't think any of us in that press box back in 1979 could have envisioned a day when Oaklawn's purses are higher than those at Santa Anita in California and equal to those in New York.

Sitting at the table with Jackson at the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame banquet last Friday was Louis Cella, the fourth generation of the Cella family to operate Oaklawn. Louis is a 1987 graduate of Washington and Lee University in Virginia and received his law degree from the University of Arkansas in 1990.

Louis inherited his father's passion for thoroughbred racing. And, like his father, he learned to trust Jackson, who grew up playing golf on a par-three course that once was on the Oaklawn infield.

As business slowed, Jackson convinced the Cella family to add Sunday racing in 1989. A year later, Jackson decided to try simulcasting. It wouldn't be an overstatement to say that simulcasting saved the sport.

"Simulcasting is the mainstay of our racing program," Jackson said in a recent interview. "Our signal goes to more than 1,000 places in North America. Back in 1990, it didn't go anywhere. The last 25 years have been pretty hard on tracks, and Oaklawn has been swimming against the stream that entire time. For a little track in Arkansas to invent, develop and pioneer simulcasting is pretty amazing. That's about 90 percent of racing business now."

By the late 1990s, Oaklawn was suffering again.

Casino gambling had proliferated in Mississippi and Louisiana. Oaklawn was in danger of going out of business. Jackson came up with the concept of Instant Racing, an electronic gambling system that allows players to bet on replays of past races. The terminals resemble slot machines.

"The 1980s were great for Oaklawn," Jackson says. "At the time, we didn't fully appreciate how great they were. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we began to face competition from tracks in Oklahoma and Texas."

Remington Park opened in Oklahoma City in 1988, and Sam Houston Race Park opened in Houston in 1994.

"We responded by instituting simulcasting," Jackson says. "While we were looking west toward Texas and Oklahoma, casinos were being built to the east in Mississippi and to the south in Louisiana."

Instant Racing was introduced in Hot Springs in 2000. Revenue generated by Instant Racing fueled purse growth.

Passage of a statewide constitutional amendment in November 2018 brought full-fledged casino gambling to what's now known as Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort.

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