Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort (Hot Springs, AR)
(Racing Dates: 01/24/2020 - 05/02/2020 )
Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, formerly Oaklawn Park Race Track, is an American thoroughbred racetrack and casino in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It is the home to The Racing Festival of the South.
In 2017, Oaklawn was ranked #5 of all thoroughbred racetracks in North America by the Horseplayers Association of North America.
In 2015, a pair of victories at Oaklawn put American Pharoah on the path to becoming American Horse of the Year and the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
Oaklawn Park opened on February 24, 1905. A holiday had been declared in the city to mark the occasion, and more than 3,000 people attended the first day of racing. In its early years, the track only ran six races a day, similar to British cards.
In 1907, political problems in the state forced the closure of Oaklawn. The closed track was sold to Louis Cella, the original business partners having both died. The track reopened in 1916 under the auspices of the Business Men's League of Hot Springs.
In 1918, Louis Cella died and the ownership of the track was transferred to his brother, Charles. For the next few years, the track was opened and closed periodically because of vagaries in the state's political climate.
In the 1929 Arkansas legislative session, a bill to allow horse racing and parimutuel betting came to a tie vote in the state House of Representatives. The only Republican member of the state House at the time, Osro Cobb of Montgomery County, had been out of the chamber when his name was called. Upon his return, Cobb cast the tie-breaking vote to allow racing and betting at the track.
In the 1930s, the track and "Spa" combined attracted many horse racing fans. In 1935, Oaklawn increased purses to become competitive with the best tracks across the country. The first Arkansas Derby was run in 1936 for a purse of $5,000. By this time, the track ran a thirty-day race meeting.
On October 29, 1940, Charles G. Cella died and the presidency of Oaklawn transferred to his son, John G. Cella (1909-1968). In 1941, purses again set Oaklawn records. By 1943, the Arkansas Derby had a purse of $10,000. Oaklawn stayed open in 1944, after World War II had closed most American tracks, but it did cancel the spring season in 1945.
At the end of WWII, a 30-day late autumn and winter season was held at Oaklawn, touching off an unprecedented period of prosperity. This financed a major clubhouse renovation and a resurfacing of the track.
Throughout the 1950s the track continued to climb in handle, attendance, and purses. In 1956, J. Sweeney Grant became manager of Oaklawn. In 1961, the track extended the season to 43 days. In 1962, the track notched the fifth-highest profit of North American tracks. By 1965, the Arkansas Derby was a $50,000 stakes that could attract top Kentucky Derby prospects.
In 1968, Oaklawn president John G. Cella died suddenly and his son Charles J. Cella took over. In 1971, Grant, under whom Oaklawn had enjoyed 16 years of remarkable growth, died.
In 1975, Oaklawn completed a renovation that added a five-level glass enclosure to the north end of the grandstand, near the top of the stretch. The addition included a general admission area, a 400 box and 2,500 reserved seats, a kitchen, a dining room and a private club.
In 1983, the all-time record handle was established. The track reached a goal of averaging $3 million in wagering every day. For the 56-day season, the handle amounted to $168,740,923, for an average of $3,013,230 a day.
Attendance for the season was 1,303,223, representing a 23,272 daily average. That same year, the purse for the Arkansas Derby was increased to $250,000. In 1984, the purse was again lifted to $500,000.
By 1985, three decades of prosperity began to reverse. Betting declined 8.1% and attendance declined by 3.7% compared to 1984. Increased competition from neighboring states, a lack of Sunday racing, and a lack of race days were blamed.
By 1990, the track was opened for races on Sundays, the grandstand had been enlarged, and attendance began to recover.
Two years later, races began timing in hundredths of seconds, rather than fifths, as with other race tracks around the world.
In 2004, to celebrate its 100th anniversary, Oaklawn Park offered a $5 million bonus to any horse that could sweep its three-year-old graded stakes, the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby, and then take the Kentucky Derby. Smarty Jones collected the bonus.
In 2015, eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah began his Eclipse award-winning season with victories at Oaklawn in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby.
Just before the 2018 season opened, Oaklawn unveiled a life-sized bronze sculpture of American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza at the grandstand's redesigned entrance. The work, by Philadelphia sculptor James Peniston, had been commissioned two years earlier by then-Oaklawn president Charles Cella to memorialize the horse's victories at the Hot Springs track.
Later 2018, Oaklawn announced that it would start its 2019 racing season a few weeks later than usual, running from late January until early May, lasting the customary 57 days and ending on the day of the Kentucky Derby. Among the reasons given for the change were spring weather conditions and January racing cancellations over the previous decade.
Oaklawn's dirt track is one mile in circumference, with a chute in the backstretch permitting sprint races at 6 furlongs. Oaklawn, like a few other US racetracks, employs two finish lines. Since the distance from the main finish line to the start of the first turn is very short, races at one mile start and end at the 1/16th pole. This reduces the length of the stretch from the usual 1,155 feet to 825 feet.
The original clubhouse was designed by Chicago architect Zachary Taylor Davis in 1904, who would later design Chicago's Old Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field. The track buildings have undergone many renovations and updated barns provide stabling for the horses.
In 2008, Oaklawn began a $3 million addition to accommodate casino-style slot machines, poker tables, and an Instant Racing complex. The casino addition made Oaklawn the largest gambling facility in the state of Arkansas.
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