For years, Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort has provided my respite from the chill of January and February, reaching a crescendo in its a stunning, star-studded spring. And I am certainly not alone in this escape. “The fifth season” (spring, summer, fall, winter, Oaklawn) has drawn visitors from across the south and around the country for decades. Traditionally, Arkansas Derby day attracts over 60,000 fans.
Last season, due to the global pandemic, Oaklawn’s rollicking record of strong attendance stopped cold in March. The track went spectator-free the day before the Rebel Stakes, the second-biggest day of racing in Hot Springs, and I cancelled several weekends of plans in Spa City. Thank goodness for Oaklawn Anywhere, the online service that allows Arkansans to watch and wager on the action (I recommended Twinspires to out-of-state fans).
Masking up and social distancing became second nature. 2020 turned into 2021. As Oaklawn prepared for her 117th season, the vaccine rollout began. We fans had our eyes on Hot Springs. Would we be able to return to the track to witness the 33 stakes races that included a rich road to the Triple Crown? Would we cheer on the next champions to run the same oval as American Pharoah, Curlin, Zenyatta, Gun Runner, Rachel Alexandra and Smarty Jones? Would we get to see the deep directory of trainers that includes four Hall of Famers—Steve Asmussen, D. Wayne Lukas, Nick Zito and Jerry Hollendorfer—give their jockeys a leg up?
Finally, Oaklawn announced a plan to satiate a portion of the appetite for live racing. The track’s leadership worked with the Arkansas Department of Health to begin the season with limited spectators, and they hope to add additional avenues for attending throughout the season. Winter was saved.
Right now, the track can host up to 6,000 socially-distanced patrons. The grandstand and the Jockey Club are open to boxholders, members and their guests. Several restaurants—The Carousel, Post Parade and Tavern—and the simulcast area are open to the public. For all of these areas, Oaklawn accepts reservations for a weekend of racing beginning the Monday before. Aspiring racegoers may call 501.363.4660, Monday-Saturday, to make advance reservations.
Additionally, a new fine dining space overlooking the track in the $100 million expansion project, The Bugler, recently opened. This restaurant accepts reservations for lunch on race days and dinner 4:00-10:00 p.m., Wednesdays through Sundays, providing a unique vantage point for the late races. Until the construction project is complete, patrons must enter through the casino, so they must be at least 21. Call 501-363-4790 or use the OpenTable app to book.
My husband and I are kin to boxholders. They graciously let us use it opening weekend and called to get our names on the list. We were elated to be heading back for live racing, but I’ll admit: I was a little nervous about seeing Oaklawn in less than her full glory.
When we arrived, we, along with everyone else, had mandatory temperature checks. We gave our names and were directed to a box. It wasn’t the one with the family name on it, but it was very close to it. We were given these seats to spread farther apart from the other attendees. Masks are required at all times, and the familiar Oaklawn redcoats roaming around assumed an additional duty of giving friendly mask-wearing reminders when necessary.
Before the first race, I had a glorious reunion with the corned beef (in the form of the Reuben sandwich) and margarita, and Oaklawn was Oaklawn. She was emptier (upside: almost no lines!). The atmosphere felt a little different. But it still felt festive—cashing five exacta tickets helped with that—and, most importantly, safe.
As the season progresses, I hope to experience other aspects of Oaklawn. President Louis Cella said the track plans to open the infield, the park-within-a-park that has been a popular option for racegoers in the past, earlier than usual, perhaps in February if the weather is mild. In the past, I’ve enjoyed taking a blanket to this green expanse, listening to the thundering hooves and relishing blue sky.
In March, another option is scheduled to open: the new yet-to-be-named on-track hotel. Half of the 200 rooms in the seven stories provide sweeping vistas of the dirt oval, and I look forward to drinking in her views and luxuriating in her spa.
I’ll be back, and I invite you to sit at least six feet away from me at Oaklawn Park. The season runs through May 1.
Sara Dacus was born and raised in Searcy, Arkansas, where she still lives with her husband Casey, their son Case and their puppy, Bode. She is an eighth grade English teacher and freelance writer who enjoys horse racing, reading and solving the New York Times crossword.