I spent last weekend in beautiful Hot Springs, Arkansas enjoying perfect spring weather and a weekend of horse racing at Oaklawn Park. My friend Holly is writing a book chapter that pertains to horse racing, and invited me to join her at Oaklawn for research. Last Saturday had several stakes races on the card- the Essex Handicap, the Azeri Stakes (G2), and the Rebel Stakes (G2).
Hot Springs is a short drive from Tulsa at 4.5 hours, so we left early Friday morning and arrived just after lunch. While we waited for Oaklawn’s paddock analyst Nancy Ury-Holthus to squeeze us in for an interview, we familiarized ourselves with the facility and made a game plan for the next day. Oaklawn is a beautiful track. It’s located in Hot Springs National Park and is nestled in the lovely forest of the Ouachita Mountains. It’s been in operation since 1904, and hosts three Kentucky Derby prep races throughout its four month long season. The facility is attractive and well-kept, and every person we encountered was friendly and courteous.
We met with Nancy, the paddock analyst and host of Dawn at Oaklawn. Nancy’s also a Thoroughbred enthusiast- she and her husband Paul own N P H Stables, and Nancy told us she starts the day mucking stalls before heading in to the office! Holly also interviewed Oaklawn’s media relations manager Jen Hoyt. Both women were knowledgeable, helpful, and friendly.
I spent Saturday morning strolling along Bathhouse Row before we headed to the track. Holly and I wanted to get to Oaklawn early to buy reserved seating; it’s only available to purchase the day of, and we were concerned it would sell out. The day’s anticipated attendance was between 35,000 and 40,000 people- for reference, Hot Springs’ entire population is about 36,000!
The track’s gates opened at 11 AM. When we arrived at 10:30 AM, a line already stretched around the building. Holly and I opted for the casino entrance, correctly thinking it might have a shorter line. Once the gates opened, we hurried through the flood of people toward the sales windows. We purchased grandstand seats and made our way upstairs to find them. Our seats were fine, but we didn’t spend a lot of time in them. Instead, we used them as a landing pad to sit and browse the Daily Racing Form or meet up after watching a race at the rail.
I spent the day doing what I usually do at racetracks: placing $2 show bets and sampling the track’s cuisine. The food was fine, the staff was friendly, and I won as much money as I lost. I had a great time watching races and perfecting my handicapping process. (I ask the important questions, like “Is this horse related to any of my horses?” and “Does this horse have a good name?”) We headed home after watching Magnum Moon win the Rebel, the last race of the day.
I had a great time in Hot Springs! I’d love to go back to explore the national park and watch more racing at Oaklawn. If you’re within reasonable driving distance, I’d definitely recommend visiting. The racing season runs from January to April, and concludes with the Racing Festival of the South in mid-April.