Visiting Oaklawn Park last weekend for the Rebel Stakes was like reuniting with an old high school chum you haven’t seen in many years. While instantly recognizable and the memories flowed back free and easy, the time apart in some ways required getting to know them all over again.
To put into perspective the time elapsed between Oaklawn trips: Bill Clinton was the hometown-boy-done-good, the beloved “Hawgs” were playing in the Elite 8 and on their way to a National Championship in basketball, and Pat Day was atop the jockey standings for the 12th consecutive and final year when we had last set foot on the grounds.
What hasn’t changed about this old friend? It remains, as it has for more than a century, a Cella family-owned concern, albeit still mourning the recent loss of the patriarch that made it what it is today. The grandstand is cavernous and spacious, blissfully so on a day like Saturday when an estimated 37,500 St. Patrick’s Day revelers made their way through the entrances. For those that don’t want to be cooped up inside all day, especially in weather as hospitable as last weekend’s, the nearly one dozen apron staircases provide room for thousands to rest their feet and soak up the sunshine, or stand and enjoy a near-unobstructed view of the entire racetrack.
What did we learn about this old friend we didn’t know before? Our last visit hadn’t included a trip over to the infield as it was a rather wet weekend. This time, with the Budweiser Clydesdales as an opening attraction, the weather pristine, and the grass green, it was a sure sign of spring’s arrival. The sight lines of the grandstand crowds and the action on the track from there is pretty neat, too.
We also had an opportunity to walk through the Carousel Restaurant and the Oaklawn Club. Charles Cella’s long-time hobby of collecting antique carousel horses and hand-crafted music boxes, scattered throughout the restaurant, gives it a distinguished and unique theme. The rare and expensive green-marble flooring in the Oaklawn Club leads to a luxurious room adorned with priceless oil portraits of the 12 Triple Crown winners, several of which knew Oaklawn well. The entire facility is a treasure trove of paintings, photographs, and drawings (mostly from the renowned pen of Peb).
What’s this old friend been up to since we last visited? The one obvious change has been the addition of a gaming facility on the track’s south side. While we only walked through a few times rather than lingered, it appeared one of the nicer venues for that type of entertainment we’ve been acquainted with in recent years. As a long-time employee explained, it exists for the benefit of the racing, which is the Cella family’s number one priority. It’s a point hard to deny considering Oaklawn’s purse structure continues to break records and average daily handle continues to climb back following declines earlier this decade following the Great Recession.
The town of Hot Springs itself is an attractive destination, with the Arlington Hotel, Bathhouse Row, and eponymous National Park offering visitors a relaxing opportunity to step back in time. You’ll find people everywhere, from Oaklawn to folks jogging on the downtown streets at dawn, among the friendliest anywhere.
For three months every winter and spring, the town revolves around its racetrack. Like Saratoga, it’s a place where one can go to think about racing and talk about racing, all the time, without feeling self-conscious about it.
When it comes to doing racing right few, if any, are better at it than Oaklawn and Hot Springs.
(All photos by Vance Hanson)