Seeing the Sights, Playing the Ponies

Jan 1, 2015 | Travel

[title subtitle=”words: Nancy Hartney
images: courtesy Oaklawn/Coady Photography”][/title]

On the first Saturday in May, racing fans turn an eye toward Kentucky and The Derby.  But folks in Hot Springs, Arkansas are months ahead with their betting dreams.

This Ozark spa town, set in a national park, has shucked its bootlegging-gangster image (Al Capone was a frequent visitor beginning in the 1920s) to become the center of the finest horse racing and casino gambling in the state.

Live season at Oaklawn Racing and Gaming Park opens on January 9, and thunders to a mid-April finish with the $1 million Arkansas Derby, a stepping stone to the Kentucky Derby. Tourists on long weekends fill up the town with everything from bedecked-hat fashionistas to hardcore keep-it-plain fans and players.

“How you doing out there?” says a bald-headed bartender inside the pavilion. He slings pay-as-you-drink beer and cocktails from mid-morning into the night. Smile and conversation free.

Food is always a big draw at Oaklawn, including its famous corned beef sandwich, which sells for only $.50 if you show up on January 10.

Race day becomes a series of glory and heartbreak moments framed through the betting windows. Cash your win-lose-or-draw ticket, grab another brew or cocktail, scan the program, make a decision, and step back to the wagering window.

Straight betting, laying $2 to win, place or show on a horse, often for the novice gambler, has fallen out of favor for many fans. Still, it has its place. Danza, named after actor Tony Danza of Who’s the Boss, laid his ears back and snatched the 2014 Arkansas Derby by 4¾ lengths. Listed as a 40-1 long shot even the straight ticket translated into nice cash.

Exotic betting attracts the die-hard player as well as the casual fan. Complex wagers commonly known as daily double, exacta, trifecta, pick four, or pick six, offer big rewards. These bets translate into a high-risk, adrenalin-rush afternoon measured out in two-minute increments.

Jack Van Berg, 1985 inductee into the National Museum of Racing, puts it best: “If I could just measure their heart, I’d have the gold key” to winning. Van Berg, best known for training Alyeshaba, the horse that won two legs of the Triple Crown in 1987, rubs elbows with track owner Charles Cella, fellow trainers D. Wayne Lucas and Bob Baffert, and jockeys Calvin Borel and Pat Day.

Oaklawn ponies run Thursday through Sunday afternoon beginning at 1:30. General admission folks flock to the tiered concrete bleachers. Hard core fans mill in and out on the track apron. On good weather days, the in-field sprawls open with picnicking fans, offering a view from the inside out. There are also grandstand tickets or climate-controlled private boxes.

Looking for something else to do while in town? Consider a leisurely brunch, shop the boutiques, visit the Gangster Museum along Central Avenue, or take in the nearby Ouachita Mountains. Fordyce Bathhouse and Buckstaff Bathhouse offer a pampering massage where you can celebrate wins or smooth away losses.

For the visitor, Hot Springs serves up the sweet life with a long-weekend chase-the-blues-away winter travel option.

Oaklawn Racing & Gaming
2705 Central Avenue • Hot Springs, AR
800-625-5296 | 800.OAKLAWN

The 2015 live racing season runs Friday, Jan. 9 through Saturday, April 11, every Thursday – Sunday. Live racing card set on Monday, January 19, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Monday, February 16, Presidents Day as well as two Wednesdays in April: April 1 and April 8. No racing Easter Sunday, April 5.

Bonus: General admission fees to Oaklawn have been dropped for 2015, meaning you can get in for free this season. Parking is $2.

Who can attend?

All ages can attend the races; however, you must be at least eighteen to wager, and you must be twenty-one or older to enter the Game Room.

Renovations: The brand new $20 million dollar expansion of the Game Room includes more than 250 new Vegas-style games, which is open year round. There’s a Poker Room, a High Limits area, and the Silks Bar & Grill, a casual sit down restaurant with more than thirty big screen TVs for watching sporting events. You’ll also find Bistro 2705, where you can buy a quick snack or sandwich. Must be twenty-one to enter this area.


During the live race meet, restaurant options are:

  • Silk
  • Lagniappes – Wednesday and Friday nights only
  • Post Parade – Live meet only
  • Carousel – Live meet only
  • Oaklawn Club – Live meet only

Reservations are strongly recommended for Post Parade, Carousel and Oaklawn Club and can be made by calling

1.800.Oaklawn, Extension 340.

Go Behind the Scenes – Backside Barn Tours offered free on Saturday mornings beginning February 14. Fans can get a behind the scenes tour of the barn area and watch horses train.

Other Sites to See While in Hot Springs

Hot Springs National Park and the town of Hot Springs lies southwest of Little Rock (AR), west of Memphis (TN) and east of Oklahoma City.  The Park encompasses the town, race track, bathhouses and mountainous hiking trails.

  • Garven Woodland Gardens, a University of Arkansas managed botanical garden with five miles of trails, unique bridges, and waterfalls, tumbles across 210-acres.
  • Enjoy hiking, driving, and wild life viewing in the mountainous Ozark terrain of the Ouachita National Forest adjacent to the National Park.
  • Bathhouse Row, a historic site popular in the early 20th century, includes the old Fordyce Bathhouse and Buckstaff Bathhouse, the only working bath and massage parlor left on the Row.
  • The Grand Promenade, accessed from downtown, is an easy half-mile walking trail between Bathhouse Row and the nearby mountains.
  • Central Avenue, Main Street for Hot Springs, offers the best in boutiques, dining, cafes, and quaint taverns.
  • The Gangster Museum of America, with seven galleries and an antique casino, spotlights the legacy of notorious mobsters Al Capone, Frank Costello, Bugs Moran, Lucky Luciano and Owen “The Killer” Madden aka the English Godfather.


Do South Magazine

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