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
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
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
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
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."