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Off and running at Oaklawn Park

So often, it seems, winter weather plays havoc with the operations at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs.

It happened again Friday when a frozen surface prevented Oaklawn from opening its 2011 race meet on schedule. The safety of the jockeys and horses must always come first.

They were off and running on Saturday, however, and more than 20,000 people turned out for the festivities.

That’s right — festivities.

The thing that continues to set Oaklawn apart from so many tracks in this country is the fact that a trip to Hot Springs — especially on a Saturday — is an “event” in this state. People get dressed up, invite their friends and discuss on the way to Hot Springs what they’re going to eat for lunch.

Unfortunately, such “event” tracks have become a rare breed across the country.

At Pimlico in Baltimore, for example, they dress up once a year for the Preakness Stakes. But on other days, Pimlico can be a dull, dreary, empty place.

I’ve written on this blog before how I would accompany a friend to Pimlico on fall Saturdays during the late 1980s when I lived in Washington, D.C. On a rainy Saturday, the wind would whistle through the old facility with few people in attendance. A line at the window? There was no such thing.

Pimlico and nearby Laurel recently received an emergency cash infusion just to keep their doors open.

Across the American landscape, countless other tracks have become sad, empty places — mere adjuncts in most cases to adjoining slot facilities.

Oaklawn is different. Yes, the so-called games of skill attract people 52 weeks a year. From January until the middle of April, though, the live racing is still the thing. Charles Cella and his sons will see to that.

One of my favorite books at home is a collection of paintings by Richard Stone Reeves called “Crown Jewels of Thoroughbred Racing.” Reeves’ work is accompanied by essays on various tracks, including an essay on Oaklawn by Hot Springs native Randy Moss.

I’m proud to call Randy my friend. We worked together at the old Arkansas Democrat. We hired Randy away from the Arkansas Gazette — the first major defection in the newspaper war — just after the Arkansas Derby and just before the Kentucky Derby in 1982. The Democrat ended up with three staff members in Louisville on the first Saturday in May — Randy, Wally Hall and yours truly. It was a week to remember.

Randy initially was known for his handicapping abilities but became quite a talented writer. Now, he’s known as a seasoned broadcaster. He can do it all, frankly.

The book was published back in 1997, but much of what Moss wrote then still holds true today. In fact, thanks to the introduction of Instant Racing and those other games of skill, Oaklawn is doing better now than it was 14 years ago.

“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,” Moss writes. “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 even on Sundays.

“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.”

You’re right, Randy. That’s indeed the secret to success. It remains fun, even for those who wouldn’t know a thoroughbred from a mule. If you’re only a casual fan of the races, try going to Aqueduct in New York one of these days and then compare it to the Oaklawn experience. Let me know what you think.

“It certainly didn’t hurt the track’s cause that the list of available major-league entertainment options in Arkansas is somewhat limited during the months of January through December,” Moss writes (I can just see that wry smile on his face as he wrote “January through December.”) “Oaklawn was clearly the place to be, and there they were, from every walk of society. Some viewed the races as an important cultural event, and dressed accordingly, but others preferred to wear ballcaps and jeans and sit on an infield blanket rather than a clubhouse chair. Mingling among them were the 10-gallon cowboy hats of Texas ranchers.”

Moss relates the marvelous story of the year when a young governor named Bill Clinton (yet another Hot Springs boy) showed up to present the trophy to the winner of the Arkansas Derby.

A New Orleans writer — with a vintage Nawlins accent — by the name of Ronnie Virgets asked Clinton, “Are you the owner of this horse?”

“No, I’m the governor of this state,” Clinton replied.

Virgets stared at him and then exclaimed: “Why you son of a gun! I’m older than you are!”

“From the politicians to the policemen, these were good-time folks, unlike the hard-core players that populated many big-city racetracks,” Moss writes. “Oaklawn was no architectural wonder, and its naive bettors never were treated especially well by the track or horsemen. But even on a losing day, patrons never seemed to lose sight of the notion that this was fun. People planned junkets for months in advance, and when they arrived in town, they were going to have a good time or deplete their bankroll trying.”

Many of the rich and famous of the thoroughbred racing world would find their way to Hot Springs without really realizing where they were.

Moss relates the story of Cuban-born trainer Laz Barrera remarking 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.”

What many consider the glory days at Oaklawn began in the late 1970s and lasted until the introduction of casino gambling in Mississippi in the early 1990s.

Moss described it this way back 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, the price of a barrel of oil has dwindled by two-thirds, 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.

“But Oaklawn is still known as the place to be when the last week of the season rolls around, when the dogwoods are in full bloom and the sparkle returns to the old lady’s eyes.”

The old lady has received a remarkably successful facelift since those words were written.

Along came Eric Jackson’s Instant Racing invention.

Along came the other games of skill.

Up went the purses.

An amazing group of Triple Crown winners have won prep races at Oaklawn in recent years.

The buzz in the national media is positive.

For Arkansans who had let Oaklawn drop down on their list of leisure time activities, the track has once more become the place to see and be seen.

I said it last year, and I’ll say it again: I’m not sure that these aren’t the good ol’ days.

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