Presidents Day at Oaklawn Park is always a great day of racing. (Photos by Eclipse Sportswire)
As I became a more dedicated racing fan, Presidents Day went from being a sleeper holiday to ranking just below Christmas. Its surge in personal preference is attributable to the festivities at Oaklawn Park.
This is the place more than 25,000 people and I want to be on the third Monday in February. Although 2015 is the third time in nine years that Oaklawn had to postpone the event because of winter weather, I am confident we will experience the same enjoyment on Sunday, the new date.
What are the ingredients of this great day?
Begin with a great race: the Grade 3, $300,000 Southwest Stakes for 3-year-olds. This race is one of 34 Kentucky Derby prep races. It is also the first leg of the Arkansas Triple Crown (the other two legs are the Grade 2, $750,000 Rebel Stakes and the Grade 1, $1-million Arkansas Derby). The Southwest draws some of the country’s top racing stars. It is a perennial favorite for Bob Baffert trainees, and it draws jockeys like Corey Nakatani, Joel Rosario and Rafael Bejarano. Superstars who spend the season at Oaklawn also have excelled in the Southwest, like trainers Steve Asmussen and D. Wayne Lukas and jockeys Ricardo Santana Jr. and Calvin Borel.
SANTANA JR. AND ASMUSSEN WITH TAPITURE
Add a great promotion: The progressive cash giveaway. Everyone receives an entry coupon at the gate. A $1,000 winner is drawn after Race 1 and a $2,000 winner is drawn after Race 2. The giveaway increases by $1,000 each race and culminates with $10,000 awarded after Race 10. In all, $55,000 is distributed to lucky fans. The collective anticipation after each race is part of the day’s fun.
End with the characteristics that make Oaklawn a success each race day: an outstanding atmosphere, a full card of quality racing, friendly people and a famous corned beef sandwich and a margarita.
On years we can pull it off, this is one of my girls’ weekends at the track, complete with spa appointments, fancy dinners and late nights in the opulent Arlington Hotel lobby. Some years, I’ve had the holiday off. Other years, it was worthy of a vacation day. One of my friends who taught for another school district called in sick, went to the track and ran into her principal.
In 2012, an abundance of entries led Oaklawn to split the Southwest into two divisions. They were run as Races 8 and 9, and we had the opportunity to bet on a special Southwest Daily Double. That year, we expected country singer and horse owner Toby Keith in the box where we sit (the box owner’s family is friends to a friend of Keith’s). He never showed.
We found out later that he watched his Southwest contender compete from the Jockey Club. Trainer Kenny McPeek came by, though, and told us about his new app that was coming out soon: Horse Races Now. McPeek has been a favorite trainer since then.
PICNICKING AT OAKLAWN
One Presidents Day, my friend Kiki and her very pregnant friend Shawn were bound and determined to get to Oaklawn. They loaded up in her four wheel drive and left Memphis in a snow storm only to get stuck overnight in Forrest City. For people unfamiliar with Arkansas geography, Forrest City is slightly less desirable than Hot Springs (and this is a major understatement). They finally made it to Hot Springs, but the track was closed. They still managed to squeeze in a spa appointment and a good meal, so it wasn’t a wasted trip.
Even with disappointing cancellations, I’ve never had a bad time in Hot Springs. In 2010, when the Presidents Day card was canceled after four races, we found diversions for the rest of the day in Crosswalk Bar and Grill across the street from the track and an upscale restaurant that is characteristic of Hot Springs.
The night before Presidents Day, I eavesdropped on a Twitter conversation between owner Danny Caldwell and The Racing Dudes about the forecasted inclement weather in Hot Springs. Caldwell said that there are worse places to be stuck: Hot Springs offers great food and fans of racing. I couldn’t agree more.