Photo Aaron Brewer
The chatter fades and all eyes point toward the action. Then someone whoops. Someone hollers. The voices begin to rise, quickly and collectively, louder and louder until it’s a full blown roar as the horses cross the finish line.
I was at Oaklawn Racing & Gaming, watching a historic running of the Rebel Stakes and getting psyched for the upcoming Arkansas Derby. The grand culmination of Oaklawn’s four-race Kentucky Derby prep series, the Arkansas Derby is a $1 million, Grade I race. In other words, it’s a pretty big deal.
With over 60,000 people in attendance, it’s a sea of big brimmed hats and decadence with Southern accents and overflowing “Oaklawn Teas.” But it’s also a family-friendly affair with bouncy houses, live music and a petting zoo in the expansive, grassy infield.
“It’s incredible to be there that day,” said jockey, Triple Crown winner and Oaklawn alum Mike Smith. “Everybody comes in from everywhere and that little town just lights up.”
The Arkansas Derby was first held in 1936 with a $5,000 purse and has since grown to become one of the nation’s top preparatory races for the Triple Crown, which includes the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. It has run every year since it started except for 1945 when Oaklawn cancelled all of its races due to World War II. Over the years, the purse has steadily increased, reaching $50,000 in 1965 and $100,000 in 1972. It was elevated to $1 million in 2004 when Oaklawn celebrated its 100th birthday. Today, Oaklawn is one of only five tracks in the country that hosts major Kentucky Derby prep races, and the Arkansas Derby is one of only five 100-point races.
“The goal of all these prep races all over the country is to earn points,” explained Oaklawn’s Media Relations Manager Jennifer Hoyt. “The Arkansas Derby will award 100 points to the winner and 40 points to the second place finisher, so if you finish in the top two in the Arkansas Derby, you’re guaranteed a spot in the Kentucky Derby.”
The Arkansas Derby has produced six Kentucky Derby winners, as well as eleven Preakness Stakes winners, and seven Belmont Stakes winners. It even put one famed horses on its path to the Triple Crown. In 2015 following a hot streak at Oaklawn (winning the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby), American Pharaoh went on to become the first horse in 37 years to win the Triple Crown. The next Triple Crown winner came along much quicker when Smith rode Justify to the win in 2018.
Inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2003, Smith is one of the sport’s most accomplished riders. A native of New Mexico, he moved to Hot Springs to apprentice at Oaklawn in 1982 at the age of 16. He became a journeyman the following year and remained based in Hot Springs for the rest of the decade. While his career has since taken him to tracks all across the country, he lists Oaklawn as one of his favorites and has returned many times over the years.
“I just absolutely love riding there,” said Smith who has won 278 races at Oaklawn, including 34 stakes races – 23 of which were graded stakes. “I’m so proud of that town and that meet and what it’s been able to accomplish.”
Smith has won all of Oaklawn’s biggest races including the Apple Blossom Handicap six times, the Rebel Stakes five times and the Arkansas Derby twice. (He leads both the Apple Blossom and the Rebel as the jockey with the most wins.) His first Arkansas Derby win came in 2008 with Gayego.
“It was a thrill,” he said. “When you’ve grown up somewhere and you weren’t able to win the big race at that meet, then that’s always something you want to do. So that was a huge accomplishment for me to win it.”
He won the race again in 2012 riding Bodemeister to the second-largest margin victory in Arkansas Derby history, winning by 9.5 lengths.
“Anytime I get to go back and ride at Oaklawn, period, I have a blast,” Smith said. “It’s like I’m going home.”
As an important stop on the racing circuit, the Arkansas Derby attracts racing fans from all across the country. But you don’t have to be a diehard to enjoy the event. You don’t really even have to know anything about it. The Arkansas Derby is a spectacle, a day of fanfare and fun, and a good excuse to get gussied up.
Local business owner, Marcia Dobbs-Smith says her favorite part about the Arkansas Derby is the people – of course she has spent the last 30 years helping race-goers look their very best. Dobbs-Smith is the owner of the Grand Lagniappe Shoppe which specializes in ladies’ fashions and, in particular, hats.
“It’s just fascinating to watch the people and the crowds,” she said. “One of the best things about Hot Springs is Derby Day. It’s fabulous.”
Following a recent shipment from New York, Dobbs-Smith’s shop was overflowing with hats. Derby Day was still a month away but she was already selling – and making – hats for the occasion. (In addition to her ready-made hats, Dobbs-Smith creates custom hats to match your outfit.)
“It’s a busy time of the year,” she said as she unpacked a box of fascinators, a sort of lightweight, hat alternative attached to a headband or sometimes a clip.
“It doesn’t mess your hair up,” Dobbs-Smith said, twirling one around in her hand. “And you don’t have to worry about blocking someone’s view.”
Dobbs-Smith said the style of hats she sells for Derby Day vary from person to person.
“Some people wear it only because they have to, because it’s the thing to do,” she said. “And then there are those people, the ones with hat-titude. They just want the bigger the better, the more outstanding. They don’t even care if it matches the outfit. It’s all about the hat.”
The hat, of course, is just the cherry on top. As for the full ensemble, the outfits are just as varied as the styles of hats.
“It’s across the board,” Dobbs-Smith said. “It depends on where your seat is, what you’re going to be doing. Are you going to be walking around? It depends on the person. I wouldn’t say there’s one particular got-to-wear thing this year or any year, really. Women are done with that.”
While in the past, the dress dominated, Dobbs-Smith thinks more women are wearing pants in recent years.
Men’s fashion is equally varied although you can expect to see quite a few seersucker suits. One year I even saw a guy wearing a seersucker short suit. (That is, shorts with a matching jacket.)
If you plan on dining in the Oaklawn Club, be sure to adhere to its dress code – a sports coat for men and dress or slacks for women. Dress jeans are ok but shorts and tennis shoes are not permitted.
With so many races, so many horses, and so many ways to win (or lose), betting can seem a bit daunting. But it doesn’t have to be. Oaklawn has a detailed wagering menu on their website that breaks down all the different types of bets.
For beginners, Mutuel Teller Linda Childs suggests starting with “Show” bets. To win, your horse must place first, second or third. Once you get comfortable, you can start betting Exactas, in which you try to guess the first and second place winners, in order. Or you can bet an Exacta “box” which means your horses can place in any order.
“I always box what I bet,” said Childs who has worked Oaklawn’s live racing meet for 44 years now, including every Derby Day but one.
“I love the atmosphere,” said the 72 year old. “I love my customers. I just enjoy talking to people and working there.”
When placing a bet, you will provide the teller the following information: The race number, the amount of the wager, the type of wager, and the horse number. The teller will then take your money and hand you a ticket. The most important thing is that you keep your ticket – and have fun.
“You just fool around with it,” Childs said. “Mainly you just enjoy it. You don’t try to get rich.”
Most people have their own style of betting. Childs grandfather only bet on grey horses, while she bets her age, picking – this year for example – horses seven and two.
Readers may cringe, but I’ve always picked horses based on their names – betting $2 to show on whatever name jumped out at me from the race program. And it seemed to work so I maintained this strategy and even got a little superstitious about it. Eventually my lucky streak ceased and I came to terms with the fact that I was not clairvoyant. But even when I was losing, I was still having fun.
Then last winter, I wrote about Oaklawn’s expanded racing schedule. With a new and better understanding of the sport, I found myself extra excited for this year’s meet. I felt I had a bit of an advantage now (although no more than anyone else who’d done a little homework). So, for the first time, at the Rebel Stakes, I based my bets on the trainers and jockeys, wagering on those I had read about or interviewed. And as Mike Smith rode Omaha Beach to victory in the second division of the Rebel, I was clutching my ticket tightly and cheering with the best of them. I hope to be cheering for him again, shaded beneath the brim of a large hat on Derby Day.
The Arkansas Derby will be held Saturday, April 11 as part of Oaklawn’s Racing Festival of the South, a three-day event that showcases the top horses across all divisions. There will be a total of 12 races on “Derby Day” culminating with the Arkansas Derby. Hoyt said they’re anticipating some 65,000-70,000 people. Fortunately, there’s plenty of room to spread out between the indoor and outdoor grandstands, and the huge infield. A large grassy lawn with plenty of shade trees (and VIP tents), the infield will be hopping with activity. There will be a hat contest, a mariachi band, food trucks and a beer garden. There will also be a Kid Zone with inflatables, a petting zoo and face painting.
Which horses will run in the race still remains to be seen, but you can bet that all eyes in the industry will be on Oaklawn this Derby Day.
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.