An Afternoon at Oaklawn Park

Events / Travel

Picnicking at Oaklawn Park during a day at the races is a favorite pastime of many. (Photos by Eclipse Sportswire)

My anticipation of a carefree day at Oaklawn Park escalates when we take Exit 111 to Highway 70, my magic highway, and are roughly 20 miles away from our destination.

The glorious two-lane road twists and turns through a wooded wonderland and passes Kream Kastle, a quaint restaurant with a framed letter from President Bill Clinton hanging on the wall, detailing his enjoyment of the establishment.

Upon arrival in Hot Springs, Ark., we take the back-road shortcut I have proudly mastered (directions are not my strong suit) and patronize the friendly elderly couple that offers inexpensive parking next to their white house on Henderson St. We head east, notice the action at Rocky’s Corner and walk across Central Ave. in the diverse conglomerate headed to the track.

ARKANSAS DERBY WINNER STATUE

I pause by the horse and jockey statue painted to match the saddlecloth and silks of the most recent Arkansas Derby winner and think fondly of derbys past.

I place a couple of dollars in the Salvation Army bucket, hoping this will provide good karma. We purchase programs, The Daily Racing Form and a Silent Sam (the yellow tip sheet with the phrase “silence is golden” emblazoned on it) after we pass through the gate.  

Although I have been handicapping several days in advance, I love to arrive early to study and discuss the races and mark up my program.

Like many dedicated fans, I have a methodical way I record scratches, bets, wins and losses. I love examining the clues and putting together a puzzle: looking at past performances and Beyer Speed Figures, searching for horses coming off a claim, noting the names of my favorite jockeys, trainers and owners.

TIP SHEET VENDOR AT OAKLAWN

Horse racing can be enjoyed on a simple level — betting on fantastic names, horse color or jockey — but it has many, many layers that can be explored. I’m only tapping approximately half of the available information, but I’m still learning. And I love that my hobby has depth.

In the grandstand, I search for familiar faces located in predictable places.

Our track friend Ted from Fort Smith watches the action by the front window. We find Connie the redcoat verifying tickets. My favorite handicapping friend Terri —we dream of peddling our own tip sheet — is in her breathtaking box. Jeff from Horatio is seated on the aisle. I relish this comforting clockwork.  

My late lunch is a Reuben sandwich. Oaklawn is known for its corned beef, but I prefer its dressed up cousin. I pair it with the famed margarita that I buy from Lynn, the bartender who has been standing in the front left corner of the Sports Tavern for years. I will wait in a longer line just to buy from him and hear his sonorous, jovial voice. My standard quip when people ask me for picks is to bet on the Reuben and the margarita. They are sure things.  

The trumpeter plays the brilliant bars of music and the post parade begins (I silence my “Call to the Post” text message notification so I don’t confuse my fellow race-goers). The horses leave the paddock. This is our chance to see the horses and jockeys up close. I love this dazzling visual spectacle of the colors and designs of the silks. Just like each horse must have a unique name, each owner must have a unique set of silks for the jockey to wear. I love seeing the green and black of Midwest Thoroughbreds, the blue with a green sash for Maggi Moss and, a rare treat that occurs a few times per season, the aqua with three yellow diagonal dots for Zayat Stables.  

I place my wager. I’ve experimented with various forms of online wagering. While these formats have certain advantages even when at the track (accuracy, avoiding lines, being able to stay seated), there’s something magical and personal about walking up to the window. It’s part of the fun.

The proper name for the tellers is mutual clerks. Many of the mutual clerks in our regular section are people who are retired from other careers and are perfectly positioned for seasonal employment. But one of my favorites is an uncharacteristically young guy. I joke with him that he came to work 40 years too early.

THEY'RE OFF AT OAKLAWN

I know I am not alone in these practices: if I’m winning, I’ll return to the same mutual clerk. If I’m chunking tickets, I’ll go to someone else in an attempt to change my luck. But my husband goes to the same lady every time, year after year. Occasionally, when she doesn’t have a line, he may consult with her about his wagers. If they win, he’ll give her a tip.

And what can compare to the thrill of the race itself?

Either watching inside with an invested, lively crowd or standing at the rail, hearing the hooves rumble in flying dirt, races are two minutes of pure adrenaline high.

I love the art of the race call. Oaklawn has been gifted with two masterful announcers during my lifetime: Terry Wallace, who called races for 37 years and had a 20,191 race streak he voluntarily broke by not calling the fifth race one January day, and Frank Mirahmadi, who took the microphone in 2012.

During the past offseason, Mirahmadi was selected to fill in at Santa Anita Park, a racecaller’s promised land, while Trevor Denman was on vacation. Now, while Mirahmadi is in the announcer’s booth, Wallace can be seen milling around the grandstands, visiting with racegoers. I’ve asked him several times to pose for a picture with me. “This is good for my image,” he always says pleasantly.  

I appreciate that post times are usually 30 minutes apart, giving horseplayers plenty of time to socialize, visit concessions and study the entries in the upcoming race. On a losing day, having gambling events spread out slows down the rate of bleeding (until I graduated to playing the simulcast races as well).  

On the last five Saturdays of the season, weather permitting, a highlight of the day is going to the sixteenth pole, tunneling under the track and emerging in the springtime infield: the park within a park.

THE GAZEBO

The dogwoods, redbuds and green trees provide a beautiful backdrop for the racing. Families sit on blankets and kids dance to Radio Disney. Adults buzz around beer gardens.

When the horses in the final race cross the finish line, sometimes we walk across the street to Longshot Saloon or Crosswalk Bar and Grill to enjoy a talented musician like Delta Donny Mathis, witness some skilled two-stepping and eke out our own post-Oaklawn shuffle.

Or, perhaps we go straight to dinner. My husband and I pretend that our success at the track determines our culinary choices: winners celebrate at The Back Porch Grill or Central Park Fusion, losers choke down defeat and the Filet o’ Fish at McDonald’s. But win or lose, we usually take advantage of first-rate Hot Springs fine dining.   

When we leave, either that night or the next morning, my heart breaks a little when Highway 70 turns into Interstate 30. The magic is over. I’m headed back to reality and counting down the minutes until we can do it all again.

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