Hot Springs, Ark. is the place to be this weekend – after all, the last big Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve qualifier takes place there with the 2019 Arkansas Derby and its $1 million purse.
If you’re planning on heading to Oaklawn Park for the weekend, we have 10 essential things you should know before you go.
1. There are 100 Kentucky Derby points on the line.
The Arkansas Derby is the final race on the road to the Kentucky Derby that gives its winner 100 points toward qualifying for the run for the roses. That means that the winner (and second-place finisher) of the Arkansas Derby is pretty much guaranteed a spot in the starting gate in America’s most famous race!
2. The race has a serious history of producing winners of Triple Crown races.
The Arkansas Derby is a really big deal for horses trying to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes: in just the last 15 years, it’s been a direct route to the winner’s circle in the three jewels of the Crown for nine horses. In 2016, Creator won the Arkansas Derby and the Belmont Stakes; in 2015, American Pharoah won the Arkansas Derby and became the first horse in 37 years to win the Triple Crown; in 2010, Super Saver completed the Arkansas Derby-Kentucky Derby double; in 2009, Summer Bird took the route through Oaklawn Park to a Belmont Stakes victory; 2007 saw Curlin win the Arkansas Derby and the Preakness Stakes; in 2005, it was Afleet Alex who won the Arkanasas Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes; and 2004 was Smarty Jones’s year to win the Arkansas Derby, the Kentucky Derby, and the Preakness.
3. Hot Springs is a little town with a wild history.
From the outside, Hot Springs, Ark. may look like a quintessential sleepy southern town; but it has a deep (and somewhat crazy) history. The city is named for its natural hot springs, which made it a tourist destination since its incorporation in 1851. However, what really sets the town apart is its wild history of gangsters and gambling: Hot Springs was the winter retreat for notorious Chicago gansters Al Capone, Bugs Moran, Lucky Luciano, and Frank Costello. That’s why you’ll find a gangster museum and several speakeasies scattered around town when you visit!
4. You can stay until May.
For the first time in the track’s history, Oaklawn will be open until Kentucky Derby day, which is on May 4. So, if you fall in love with Hot Springs, you’ll have plenty of chances to come back after the Arkansas Derby to enjoy the races for the rest of April!
5. Soak it all in.
If you’re staying in Hot Springs for the long weekend, try to pencil in some time at one of the many bathhouses in the city. They’re Gilded Age monuments to a time when taking in the hot waters was considered to be a cure for all ills, and they’re still a popular retreat for a relaxing day at the spa.
6. Take a hike.
If you love nature, you’re going to adore Hot Springs. That’s because the town is surrounded by the Hot Springs National Park, which is stunning in the spring time. Bring your walking shoes and head for the hills to take in the natural beauty of the Ouachita Mountain range.
7. Pick some winners.
Want to win big over Arkansas Derby weekend? You’ll have lots of chances! In addition to the big race, want some help picking winners? You can check out one of the many tip sheets sold at the track, or head on over to the Arlington Hotel on Arkansas Derby morning to get expert advice on the afternoon’s races.
8. Tour the barns.
If you’re curious what life is like for the horses who live at Oaklawn, catch one of the free barn tours on Saturday morning as part of Dawn at Oaklawn. Tours take off at 7, 7:30, 8:30, and 9 a.m. local time, and you’ll get the chance to go to areas usually restricted to horsemen and horsewomen. The best part is that tours are free, and you’re welcome to spend the rest of your morning watching horses train while host Nancy Holthus interviews trainers, owners, and jockeys.
9. Go to the Infield.
If you’ve never been to Oaklawn Park, you need to put the track’s infield on your list of things to do, because it’s one of the most beautiful and fun areas in all of American horse racing! There’s something for everyone in the infield, including a beer garden, food trucks, live music, plenty of betting windows, and even a petting zoo for kids.
10. Come hungry.
Every sporting venue has its iconic food, and Oaklawn’s is the corned beef sandwich. It’s delicious and indulgent, and you’re going to want to have an empty stomach before you tackle it! The track also has an incredible soft-serve ice cream stand; and, if you have a spare morning, swing by the track kitchen (it’s open to the public!) for a tasty and affordable breakfast.