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SODOM'S 87 CHURCHES INVITE
HI! IF YOU LIVED IN GOMORRAH
Preposterous as it seems, one of these three signs is actually for real, upon a roadside. Hot Springs, Ark., whose residents used to boast at Jaycee meetings that theirs was ' 'the sin city of the whole world," is so benign and pure now that the only place to get a bet down is at the racetrack, and if you go to the baths to get a massage, that is exactly what you get—a massage.
Sin is up and wagering is down all over America but in the once nefarious, wide-open Valley of the Vapors the fabled Southern Club casino has been turned into a museum, the I.Q. Zoo and the national stone-skipping championship are featured tourist excitements and at classy little Oaklawn Park, where the horses manage to race without benefit of exactas, quinellas, superfectas or any other mutuel monkey business, the fans are arriving in droves and thrusting their money upon management—win, place and show, just like Grandpa used to do.
Last week it was Arkansas Derby time, the biggest occasion of the year in what used to be called the Paris of the Bible Belt. In old casino days the high rollers would Super Chief in from all points of the compass, and in some "muscle games"—head-to-head competitions—$100,000 in dollar bills rested on the felt. Anything went. There was even a rooster tout, the Pickin' Chicken, who for a reward would peck out race selections. By contrast, this Derby week the big winners were strictly legal: Oak-lawn Park and a personable young steak-house mogul named Dan Lasater who is suddenly the leading horse owner in the country.
Oaklawn profits by being the only track within hundreds of miles and because it is the only gambling establishment left in a place that gamblers instinctively swim upstream to reach. Imagine, if you will, how much work Oral Roberts could get in Lourdes if the waters there ran dry. But since 36-year-old Charles Cella took over as president, Oaklawn has more than simply benefited from an overlay; its performance has stood a mixed-up, struggling industry on its ear. Five years ago the track's handle averaged around $716.000 a day but this season it is up 91% to $1,370,000. Last week there were stakes run daily, with the $50,000 Fantasy for 3-year-old fillies on Friday and the $100,000 Derby for 3-year-old colts on Saturday. Every race on that card was longer than a mile, and despite dismal morning showers, a record 28,142 fans turned out with $2.9 million burning through their pockets. Oaklawn has consistently outhandled the high-falutin' tracks, and there were many days during this meeting when its purses exceeded those of every track in the land. Several thousand horses bid for 1,400 stalls. "Oaklawn is harder to get into than Harvard," Cella beamed from his house at the eighth pole.
Across the track Dan Lasater squinted under the bill of his engineer cap into the rising sun. "There's not another track like this," he said. "It's funny how much people will get hung up on little things and forget what's really important. Here they made it so the good horses want to come. Good horses and a nice place and good people to deal with. And the pots are right if you like to run horses. I love to run horses."
It was the morning before the Derby. Lasater was running two horses in the Derby and six other horses in six other races on the card. It is only his third year in racing on a large scale. He won $335,000 in 1971, $758,000 last year and going into last Saturday had earnings for 1973 of about $430,000, which was more than anybody else in the country. He has just turned 30.
People often say that there are no more frontiers in America; certainly there are no more frontiers like the Alleghenies or the Great Divide or a big-money set-to at the Southern Club. But for sure there are still frontiers. Dan Lasater's was hamburgers. At 17, just out of high school in Sharpsville, Ind., he got a job at 60� an hour sweeping floors at McDonald's over in Kokomo. Within five years he had his own operation going called the Ponderosa Steak Houses. There are now 265 of these, and the stock listed on the big board sells at $55 a share. Dan Lasater has a nice chunk, although he has "retired" from the operations end to concentrate on Lasater Enterprises, which owns 75 horses, 1,500 head of cattle, four farms, some oil and other things. The oldest of his 50 employees is 43. Everybody calls the boss Dan.