But the early morning sun was streaming low across the track and horses are beautiful creatures in any weather. Cold or not, I was excited to be here. It was just before Christmas – over a month before opening day of the 2019 racing season – but 807 horses, nearly half of those expected, were already on the grounds. I’d arrived at 7:30 a.m. to watch them run and discuss some highlights of this 115th year of Oaklawn – a year to go down in the history books for sure.
“There is definitely a buzz in the air going into this season,” said Media Relations Manager Jennifer Hoyt.
Some big announcements have been coming out of Oaklawn in recent months, most notably the $100 million-plus expansion. One of the largest hospitality investments in Arkansas’ history, it will include the construction of a high-rise hotel, an event center, and an expanded gaming area. Work on the project has begun and is expected to be complete before the start of the 2020 live race season. The season will start on Friday Jan. 24th and will extend past the Arkansas Derby – all the way to Sat. May 2 – so we can look forward to more warm and sunny race days.
"When you look at our crowds, they build,” Hoyt said. “As the weather gets nicer, the crowds start coming out and just as we hit the peak of spring in Arkansas, we end racing.”
The thought, she said, was to give fans three extra weeks of racing during one of the nicest times of year in Arkansas. Of course, with year-round entertainment, you don’t have to wait for a warm day to enjoy Oaklawn.
“Every day is good here,” said Hot Springs-based trainer Al Cates. “With the racing, the casino, the food, the atmosphere, it’s just a fun day.”
In the early morning training hours, he stood in the warmth of the indoor grandstand peering through binoculars, watching the horses circle the track. During a break, we chatted about Oaklawn and the upcoming season.
“We’re all excited,” he said. “Oaklawn is by far our favorite race track, not just because we live here, it’s just good. Everything about it is good.”
Facing enormous windows, the grandstand offers great views of the track and is the place to be on cooler days when you don’t want to be outside. I’d recommend buying a reserved seat which is surprisingly affordable. I think people assume you have to spend big to spend a day at the races but that’s simply not the case. Admission is free and there is free seating on the first floor and outside. Reserved seating in the grandstand is available for just $2.50 on weekdays and $4.50 on weekends. Six-person boxes are also available for $30 on weekdays and $42 on weekends.
I asked Cates what he would recommend to someone wanting to make the most of their time at Oaklawn…
“I would have them come out here in the mornings to have a feel for the training and, of course, the food here is awesome,” he said, “so I’d have them take out a box where they have plenty of room and just enjoy the pageantry and the color of a day at the races.
So bundle up and make plans to enjoy some of these early season highlights:
The racing season kicks off Friday, Jan. 25. with the Smarty Jones stakes race, the first of Oaklawn’s four preps for the Kentucky Derby.
Held on the first Saturday of the season, Jan. 26, Oaklawn serves up its legendary sandwiches for only 50 cents. Add a soft drink for 10 cents more. The day will feature a full nine-race card including the $100,000 American Beauty Stakes.
Held from 7:30-9:30 a.m. each Saturday beginning Feb. 16, this free event invites the public to watch the Thoroughbreds train. Hosted by Nancy Holthus with special guests such as owners, trainers and jockeys, this behind-the-scenes look at Oaklawn also includes barn tours at 7:30 a.m., 8 a.m., 9 a.m., and 9:30 a.m. “Kids love it,” Hoyt said.
Take advantage of a three-day weekend packed with stakes races including the Dixie Belle stakes on Saturday, Feb. 16, and the Bayakoa, the Razorback Handicap, and the Southwest stakes all on Monday, Feb. 18. Presidents’ Day Weekend is also the kick-off to the Dawn at Oaklawn series.
As the weather warms up, it’s nice to get outside and enjoy Oaklawn’s expansive, grassy in-field which will be open Saturdays from March 16 to May 4 (weather permitting). Each week will have a different theme along with vendors, a petting zoo, bouncy houses and a beer garden. The first day the in-field opens will feature three stakes races including the Rebel Stakes, which is one of three races with a purse increase this year. Another prep for the Kentucky Derby, the Rebel now boasts a $1,000,000 purse, making Oaklawn the only racetrack in the country with two $1,000,000 triple crown preps.
The season culminates with the Racing Festival of the South which will be held April 12-14 with five stakes races including the Arkansas Derby. And to finish out the extended season, Oaklawn has added three new stakes races: The Oaklawn Mile on Friday, May 3, followed by the Arkansas Breeders' Championship and the Oaklawn Invitational on Saturday, May 4.
Whatever time of year you visit, you can anticipate having a good time especially if you take advantage of all of Oaklawn’s offerings.
Entering Oaklawn’s gaming area is a sensory explosion with all the lights, sounds and crazy carpet you’d expect to find in a Vegas casino. Try your luck within the rows upon rows of video poker, or at one of the table games like Black Jack, Three Card Poker or Roulette. Keep an eye on the Oaklawn’s calendar for different promotions each month.
Pop’s Lounge and Silks Bar and Grill are both located in the gaming area and feature live music throughout the race season (Thursday through Saturday in Pop’s Lounge and Friday through Saturday in Silks). And even if you don’t plan on playing the slots, its worth a trip to the gaming area for the food. Kerri Hobby, director of food and beverage operations, recommends Silks hamburger.
“All are USDA choice, fresh, never frozen, hand-pattied, eight-ounce burgers,” she said. “And you can get them several different ways.”
She and I chatted about all of Oaklawn’s famous menu items which includes breakfast, lunch and dinner options. The Track Kitchen, located outside of the main facility in the south parking lot, is well known for its huge pancakes and fried chicken. Once inside, you have to try a corned beef sandwich, one of Oaklawn’s signature items. A testament to how good they are: Oaklawn serves 54,000 pounds of corned beef during the live racing season, including about five tons on opening weekend.
“After you have your corned beef sandwich, then you need to have some oysters,” Hobby said. “We order them on a Monday. They are literally pulled from the water on a Tuesday and we might get them on a Wednesday. That’s how fresh they are.”
To wash it all down, try one of Oaklawn’s signature beverages such as the Oaklawn Tea, a “southern peach spin” on a traditional Long Island Ice Tea or a Cecil Alexander. Named for the former chairman of the Arkansas Racing Commission, it’s Oaklawn’s spin on the Brandy Alexander and comprises vanilla ice-cream blended with Kahlua and garnished with a chocolate filled pirouette. Oaklawn also has a build-your-own Bloody Mary stand with a full condiment station and wide selection of craft beer. They’ve recently partnered with Lost Forty Brewing in Little Rock on a new cream-ale, called Folks, which will premier at Oaklawn this season. Just look for the tap handle with a horse head on it.
“It’s going to be very recognizable when you walk up,” Hobby said.
Chatting with her about all the dining options made me hungry so I decided to try a burger from Silks. It arrived, pierced with a steak knife – handy because it was so big I had to cut it in half. Topped with bacon and cheese, it was incredibly juicy and delicious. I chowed down while reading about horseshoes and how they came to be a symbol for good luck. You can pick one up in the Winning Colors Gift shop, located at the south side entrance. Oh, and they also carry stationary made from horse poop – a fun way to write your friends about the amazing time you’ve had at Oaklawn.
For more information, visit www.oaklawn.com.
Leslie Fisher is a media professional with a passion for travel and adventure. She has Covered Hot Springs and the surrounding areas for over a decade and enjoys being a tourist in her hometown.