The 1934 Fight to Reopen Oaklawn, The Legend and a Little ‘Magic’

The Life
Horses break out of the starting gate at Oaklawn Park, which kicks off its 2017 racing season on Jan. 13. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Dave Hill is a writer whose work has been featured on Grantland, This American Life, in New York Magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Times, GQ, McSweeneys and various other publications in print and on the internet. Hill moved with his family from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Hot Springs, Ark., to work on a book about his grandmother and the illegal casino she worked at that was mysteriously blown up in 1963 in a small Arkansas town. Hill is chronicling the experience in a newsletter that features regular dispatches about the adventures, musings on what he’s researching and writing and links to interesting things he discovers or enjoys. Read the most recent newsletter below and sign up for the newsletter here.

Luther Summers was an old-school Baptist preacher. He made his way in the world preaching in Tennessee tent revivals, dunking heads in the water and saving souls at a furious enough rate to get the attention of church leaders throughout the South. His preached fire and brimstone against the ills of society, chiefly among them liquor and gambling. His crusade eventually brought him to Hot Springs, Ark., the belly of the liquor and gambling beast, in the late 1920s when he took over the pulpit at the Park Place Baptist Church, which was known throughout the South from its Sunday live radio broadcasts as the “little white church in the valley.”

Summers had been preaching at the little white church for six years when Marion Futrell was elected governor of Arkansas. Futrell sent word to the mayor of Hot Springs, Leo McLaughlin, that he would be willing to sign a bill legalizing horse racing in Hot Springs once again. Oaklawn Park had been shuttered since 1919 and a number of attempts to pass a bill through the state to open it back up had failed under past governors. But here was an opportunity! Futrell was friends with local judge Verne Ledgerwood, who himself was a part of the “little combination,” the coalition of local political leaders and gamblers who kept the casinos running wide open in Hot Springs.

McLaughlin organized a group called the Business Men’s Racing Association to promote the cause of horse racing in Hot Springs, arguing it would be a boon for the entire economy, which was hurting from the Great Depression. Despite Futrell’s assurances he would sign a bill, the legislature wouldn’t meet again until 1935. The little combination didn’t want to wait a year; they wanted to get the track opened right away. So they contacted the owner of the track and told him to open it up right away for the 1934 meet, and assured him they’d protect him and anyone else from prosecution. He agreed and they went forward with announcing that Oaklawn Park would be open for business for the 1934 season.

My father introduced me to the racetrack when I was very young. He grew up around the track, working the backstretch as a groom and hot walker, traveling the country as a young man working for various trainers on the circuit. When I was little, he would bring me with him every weekend when he went to the track to watch and bet on the horses. He taught me all there was to know and love about the sport. But he doesn’t deserve all of the credit. There was another man who helped me fall in love with horse racing.

When I was 13 years old, my mother met a man named George in a bar. He wore a fedora, talked loudly, sang songs even louder and could swill large quantities of whiskey. He was from Tennessee. He told my mother that he was the greatest gambler that ever lived. He said they called him “The Legend.” He backed it up by producing for her a copy of his book, his name right there on the cover, titled “How to Win at the Oaklawn Park.”

My mother didn’t have much time for loudmouths in fedoras and especially didn’t care for books about gambling. She tossed me the book across the dining room table one night. I devoured it, hoping to unlock the secrets of how to win money at gambling. Once I finished it, I set out in search of The Legend at Oaklawn to meet him for myself.

Fans on the apron at Oaklawn. (Eclipse Sportswire)

I found him where everyone said he’d be – sitting on the steps at the eighth pole on the apron outside the grandstand. There, he held court every single day of the Oaklawn meet, along with the rest of the “Eighth-Pole Gang.” There was Eddie Pick 6 in his shirt and tie, Rodeo Pat with his handlebar moustache, Longshot Dave, Sandy Red, Coach, The Machine. They came from all across the country. Back in those days, there was hardly any simulcasting. For most tracks, if you wanted to bet on them, you had to be there in person, so the professional gamblers stayed on the road. These men were a fraternity of road gamblers who had eked out a living like this for years, traveling track to track and living on the rail day after day, getting into a rhythm and finding and exploiting the patterns and information they discovered. They spent their days sitting in the sunshine watching horse races, drinking beer and betting big money. They spent their nights eating steak and closing down the bar at the Arlington Hotel. When I found them, I felt like I was returning home to my long-lost tribe.

I was five years too young to bet. In the beginning, I’d just sit near them, observe and listen to them talk. They’d argue about horses, tell stories about the old days, strategize the best way to bet a race, or just cause a general ruckus. They bet with both hands, peeling hundreds from gigantic rolls of bills. They shouted complicated formulas to each other as it got closer and closer to post time. “Part wheel the 2 with the 3,4,7!” “Hey get me a 4 with the 2 and 3 with the 1 with the 2 and 8!” “$200 exacta 7 on top of the field!” When they lost, they commiserated. When they won, they celebrated. But they were a band of brothers … in it together until the very end. To have a winner you didn’t share with the rest of the gang before the race? An unforgivable act. To not have had a bet on the winner someone touted to the group? An embarrassment.

The Eighth Pole gang made tons of money and had a good time doing it. People noticed. From time to time, some rich person way upstairs in the Jockey Club would send an usher down to the eighth pole to find The Legend and ask him what he liked in the race. He always obliged these mysterious wealthy tip-seekers. It helped to have friends in high places, he said. Just like it helped to have friends in low places, like the Mexican grooms and apprentice jockeys he would drink whiskey with in the barns. It seemed like The Legend knew everyone at Oaklawn. And even if he didn’t, everyone at Oaklawn knew The Legend.

When word reached Luther Summers that the racetrack was opening back up – and in defiance of the law no less – he went to work to stop it. He not only preached vehemently against horse racing from the pulpit on Sundays, he organized other ministers to contact Gov. Futrell to demand he send the state militia to Hot Springs to prevent the opening of the racetrack. Futrell declined, stating that it was the local police and sheriff’s job to enforce the laws. The local police and sheriffs, of course, were all in on the fix.

Summers was pissed. He damned them all to hell from the front of the “little white church in the valley.” Then one day a letter arrived in the mail. It suggested that Summers should leave town immediately or else “your church will burn and you’ll be among the missing.” It was signed with a skull and crossbones.

Summers hired a guard to watch the church around the clock. He took the letter to the local police and asked for their protection. They suggested that the best thing he could do for his safety was to heed the letter’s advice. After all, the rumors around town were that many in his own congregation were unhappy with him preaching against the racetrack. Couldn't he take a hint?

The Conway, Ark., newspaper ran an editorial in support of Summers. It read in part:

Is it possible that when this dastardly letter became public that the Mayor, Police Chief and Sheriff did not go in body to the threatened brother pastor and pledge the police power to protect his life and church property?

Is it possible that the newspapers of that city failed to strenuously sound the warning that the writer of the dastardly letter must be run down and prosecuted?

If these lapses of duty are true, then the “Valley of the Vapors” has smeared itself with a black mark that the passing of time will never erase.

For their part, the local papers ran with a story about how a telegram had arrived in Hot Springs from Summer’s elderly mother in Tennessee, worried sick for his safety. According to those newspaper reports, the telegram read, “Come to mother, son.”

I eventually introduced myself to The Legend by sheepishly bringing his book with me and sitting near them with it in hand. “Hey, kid, you want me to sign that thing?” I handed him the book. He signed it. He shook my hand.

“Who do you like this race?” he asked me.

“I like the four.”

He turned to the steps and addressed the gang, “Who here likes the four?”

“I like him all right.”

“He’s a good closer.”

“He could win, sure.”

The Legend pulled out a wad of bills. “I wasn’t sure if I was gonna put the four on top or on bottom but you just convinced me.” He peeled off five or six hundred-dollar bills.

“Four on top!” he yelled to the crowd.

“Four on top! You got it, Ledge,” they replied. They each started for the window to bet. I pulled out my $20 bill and offered it to The Legend.

“Can you bet for me, too?”

“Shit, how old are you, kid?”


A look of worry came over his face. “And you sure you read this book?”

“Cover to cover.”

He laughed. He snatched my $20 bill. “Kid, you got yourself a bet.”

Would you believe the four won the race? Would you believe they cheered for me like a conquering hero after the race? Would you believe that George The Legend told everyone the rest of the day the story about how “the kid” showed up with a copy of his book and picked the four and they all made a fortune? Can you imagine how a 13-year-old boy might lose his mind with delight? Could you see how that boy might decide, then and there, that he never wanted to be anywhere else but among gamblers?

And for the rest of that meet, that’s where I was as often as I could get there. My dad would bring me to the track, and I’d kick up dust leaving him standing at the paddock so I could go hang with the Eighth Pole Gang. They’d place my bets for me, ask me what I liked, argue with me about how to handicap a race and even gave me a nickname. After I showed Rodeo Pat a card trick one day, they all started calling me “Magic.”

The Legend taught me about how to pick horses, how to bet, how to manage your bankroll. He showed me “the Wailing Wall,” a special brick in the racetrack where he’d go place his hand for good luck when he was having a particularly bad run. He introduced me to jockeys, to beautiful women, to rich people, to criminals, to brilliant gamblers, to good, hardworking decent horsemen and horseplayers alike. And, on the last day of the meet, during the post parade before the Arkansas Derby, “The Legend” let me help him lead the stands in singing the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

The next race meet, The Legend didn’t show. Simulcast had exploded, and gamblers didn’t need to hit the road anymore. You could bet on any track from anywhere. The few of the Eighth Pole Gang that still showed up the next year said that George chose to stay home in Tennessee and save money on expenses. It was hard to believe he’d give up on all of the fun and excitement of being there in person, but at the end of the day it was his job, not his hobby. I never saw The Legend again.

Despite the best efforts of Reverend Summers, Oaklawn Park reopened on March 1, 1934. Mayor McLaughlin declared the day a holiday and asked local businesses to close and give everyone the day off so they could attend the races. The 21-day meet welcomed massive crowds to Hot Springs, with traffic on Central Avenue jammed for hours each day. Celebrities and dignitaries came to Hot Springs from all around to take in the races, including former Arkansas Gov. Harvey Parnell, who had once refused to sign a bill legalizing horse racing. Well, before the end of those three weeks, the writing was on the wall. Racing was back for good. On the final day of the meet, more than 15,000 people showed up at Oaklawn. It was the largest crowd to attend a sporting event in the history of the state of Arkansas.

Rev. Luther Summers got the message. By the time the race meet was over, Summers had packed his things and left Hot Springs for good.

The following year the legislature legalized horse racing good and proper, and the 1935 race meet was even bigger than the one the year before. Horses were brought to Arkansas from all over the country by trainers rich and poor, big and small. One of those small-time trainers to show up in Hot Springs for the 1935 race meet was Clyde “Pappy” Welch, an Ohioan who spent most of his days hauling a single-horse trailer down state highways from track to track. On this trip to the Spa City for the much-ballyhooed 1935 race meet, he decided to let his teenage daughter, Hazel, tag along. Pappy would have no luck, losing his horse, his bankroll, and his car and trailer during the meet. When the races were over, he boarded a bus for Tijuana, Mexico, to try his luck at the races there. Hazel stayed behind in Hot Springs. She had fallen in love with a milkman named Hollis Hill. The rest, as they say, is history.

The existential significance of all of this weighs heavy on me. Without a corrupt mayor and police chief willing to openly break the law against threat of a militia, I might never have been born. If not for those men willing to take that risk, Hazel would never meet Hollis, my father would never have a chance to travel the country in the back of horse trailers, I would never get the chance to travel the world covering horse racing as a journalist and writer. This sport and I are cosmically linked. I would not exist but for a black mark, unerased by the passage of time. I owe my whole existence to a collection of horsemen, gamblers and crooked cops desperate to go back to the track. Is it any wonder I’m drawn back to the track again and again myself?

This weekend is the start of live racing at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs. It will be Oaklawn's 113th year, minus those dark days the track was shuttered before 1934. I’m happy to be here to spend some time at Oaklawn after a long absence. Over the many years, I’ve lived away from Hot Springs, I still would return for the Arkansas Derby as often as I could. It served as a de-facto family holiday and homecoming. And every time I’d come to town for the Derby, I’d always venture out to the eighth pole, hoping to see some of the old gang. They’re all long gone. The steps are now populated by regular, salt of the earth, program-waving civilians. Once, a few years back, I considered trying to get them all to join me in singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” during the Arkansas Derby post parade. The spirit just didn’t move me. I let the race run unsung. And, unsung it remains to this day.

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