If you’re planning your first visit to Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., you are in for merriment of the first order and a world-class racing experience. When you visit, you’ll see why Oaklawn has been a winter home for people like Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has more Triple Crown victories than any other trainer, country music star and horse owner Toby Keith, and the late Virginia Kelley, Thoroughbred racing superfan and mother of President Bill Clinton. Here are some pointers to make your first visit a grand success.
The track has three parking lots (where parking is only $2), but they can fill up quickly. I usually approach Central Avenue and the track heading east on Henderson Street (it’s a one-way street) where several people operate private parking lots next to their homes. My first choice is to park in a lot next to a big white house with Mr. Peake, a congenial older gentleman who has become a track friend. On the rare occasion his lot is full, I park with Coach Bryan next to his yellow home. Both lots are a short walk to Rocky’s Corner, a popular pizza place to meet up pre-game.
A track entrance slightly off the beaten path is across the street. For the third year, track entry is free. This entrance is right by the ticket office. A stop at this office is unnecessary if you wish to take advantage of several great common areas, including bleacher-style seating on the apron. I always like to watch at least one race from the rail. However, for the majority of the day, I prefer to be inside in the grandstand area. These tickets can be purchased the day-of, or ahead of time.
The main entrance to the track is a little further down Central Avenue. Here, my favorite feature is the horse and rider statue that is painted to match the most recent Arkansas Derby winner. And across the street from this entrance sits another good option for either pre-gaming or post-gaming: Crosswalk Bar and Grill.
At both of these track entrances, a Salvation Army bell ringer usually greets racetrackers. Slip a couple bills in the kettle for good race day karma. Both entrances also have stands that sell programs and the tip sheets that make up Oaklawn’s healthy tout business. Definitely purchase a program. If you decide to buy a tip sheet, I have two to recommend. One of my favorites is Silent Sam, a yellow tip sheet that has “Silence is Golden” emblazoned on it. Another favorite is Mark the Magician’s. If you begin at Crosswalk Bar and Grill, he will be sitting on the bar selling his tip sheets there, and he will discuss the picks with you, which is a nice perk.
The paddock is near the main entrance. If you wish to see the horses here before the race, go early. Right before the call to the post, people will be three and four deep around the fencing. Visiting the paddock is a great way to be in close proximity to some of racing’s biggest stars, like Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen and Hall of Fame jockey Calvin Borel.
Also near the main entrance: an opportunity to get an old-fashioned shoe shine in a shoe-shine stand. The two stations always seem to be busy.
Once inside, I head to the second floor of the grandstand area. This area is always buzzing with activity. It’s a great place to people watch or run in to people you may know.
Many of the mutuel clerks working the betting windows have been at Oaklawn for years. My favorite is a woman named Joan, who is married to the man who was Calvin Borel’s agent for years. Of course, it is bad etiquette to hold a conversation at the window when you have a line behind you, so I recommend betting early, before the lines form, and getting acquainted with some of these people who have very unique perspectives.
When it’s time to eat, you simply must try the corned beef sandwich. It is what the track is known for. I prefer the Reuben, the riff on this original that serves the corned beef on rye and adds sauerkraut, Thousand Island, and mozzarella. The place to get this is at the Arkansas Sports Tavern. Here, they serve the sandwich on a pumpernickel roll.
Downstairs at the Pony Express, the Reuben is served on rye toast that is fried in a pan with butter. In the Sports Tavern’s sandwich line, you can purchase a beer – but to get a margarita, which is also an Oaklawn favorite, you must belly up to the adjoining bar. I recommend that you divide and conquer with a friend: one person gets the sandwiches, the other person grabs the margs.
Here is a very, very insider tip. I can’t believe I am sharing it and therefore welcoming competition. When the line is out the door for the restrooms in the main area, I head to the smoking section at the south end of the second floor. I have never had to wait in line for this restroom.
After the last race, join the masses heading into Oaklawn’s casino, go back across the street to Crosswalk, or make plans to dine at The Backporch Grill. Wherever you end up, I predict you will be discussing the many high points of your day and planning your next race day at Oaklawn Park.