SI Vault
 
IT'S ONE BIG PARTY
Jay Cronley
March 20, 1978
The oak trees in bright new leaf and the vivid jockey silks mean its Derby Week at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas' storied old Hot Springs. The crowds of bettors and tourists grow each year, some attracted by the racing, still others by the sights and the prospect of a salubrious swig of mineral water or a soothing bath.
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March 20, 1978

It's One Big Party

The oak trees in bright new leaf and the vivid jockey silks mean its Derby Week at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas' storied old Hot Springs. The crowds of bettors and tourists grow each year, some attracted by the racing, still others by the sights and the prospect of a salubrious swig of mineral water or a soothing bath.

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Hot Springs is a town near the middle of Arkansas, in diameter about the size of a nice jog. And because it is so hard to lose money there, people come from Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Missouri, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, even Chicago, for Arkansas Derby Week.

Swift horses, salty jockeys, big hitters—men who lean against walls and scratch their chins with $50 win tickets—and women who wear mink and pretend it is not 75� also show up at Oaklawn, the track in Hot Springs, for Derby Week, which is one big party.

Last April 2, a record crowd of 54,216 was at Oaklawn for the 1977 Arkansas Derby, and nearly three-quarters of a million dollars was bet on the feature, which proves that people living within 700 miles of Hot Springs are starved for either racing or gambling. During Derby Week there are four $100,000 races, and so many horses are airlifted into Hot Springs from other tracks around the country it looks as if somebody is shooting a cavalry movie.

Oaklawn is proof that a vacation place does not have to be where freeways intersect. Hot Springs is near Little Rock, Mount Ida, Malvern, Arkadelphia and not a whole lot else. The best way to get there is to have a horse that wins the Louisiana Derby, as did Clev Er Tell in 1977; then you can get a room within hoofing distance of the track for practically a song. Otherwise, places near Oaklawn crank their prices up to $50 a night for what usually is a $14 room. A few motel rooms close to Oaklawn sell out for the entire season—to the same person. A doctor from Tulsa, a five-hour drive away, comes to the races every Wednesday and goes home every Sunday. Spring is a bad time for his patients to get sick.

One of the reasons why it is hard to lose money at Oaklawn is its location—you can easily get lost trying to find it and miss the opening races, thereby saving whatever you would have wagered. Hot Springs, which has an area-wide population of about 55,000 because of several recently developed lake communities, is an old town that rests in the middle of the Ouachita Mountains like a ball in a glove, very naturally and comfortably. Until 1963 Hot Springs was wide open with all types of gambling—slots, roulette, dice, cards, the works—and it served as a valuable oasis for those Easterners and Midwesterners and Southeasterners who could not afford Vegas. But throwing deadbeats in the lakes was ruining the fishing, so all gambling, except pari-mutuel wagering at Oaklawn, was outlawed.

The streets in Hot Springs are narrow, and some of the bars have doors at each end, probably because when the town was full of hoods, a person had to keep moving.

A number of tourists still come to town for a mineral bath whose waters flow from underground springs. Bath House Row is a series of graceful old structures and elegantly groomed lawns. Also remaining from Hot Springs' more glorious days are the Arlington and the Majestic, two grand resort hotels Miss Marple would have loved. The hills encourage rain, and by mid-March the place is ablaze with dogwood, sumac, dandelion and fawn lilies.

Arkansas Derby Day is the big finish. The reserved and box seats, of which there are 10,000, are usually sold out every Friday and Saturday of the season, which runs from February to April. When the $1 general-admission gates open, it is like a land run. People dash for choice outside seats near the finish line. One woman from Memphis got there two hours early and nestled into a beauty of a place in the bleachers, 10 yards from the finish. In the first race on Derby Day she had a $15 winner, but wouldn't vacate her seat for a payoff of anything less than $25.

The infield is beautifully kept. Clydesdales haul the starting gate onto the track and graze in the rolling infield. Bands, very gusty bands, march through the indoor grandstand areas.

The main reason it is hard, and sometimes quite impossible, to lose money at Oaklawn is because there are so many people there. You can't always get to a betting window. First-time visitors to the track stand in the Daily Double line 20 minutes to ask, "Now, how many horses do I have to guess to win money?" The cashiers, many of whom work the circuit, moving from track to track, think they have seen everything until they hit Oaklawn. One cashier says, "The truth is 60% of the people here wouldn't know a horse from a goat. They only buy the Racing Form to fan themselves."

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