What began as a relatively small racetrack in 1905, Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort has grown into the largest gambling facility in Arkansas, complete with a casino and hotel.
The latest construction project, which includes a new seven-story hotel, will be finished this year for an expansion that Gov. Asa Hutchinson called “monumental.” Despite the growth of the casino and the addition of the hotel and a multi-purpose events center, thoroughbred racing remains the heart and soul of Oaklawn.
Oaklawn Racing is located in Hot Springs National Park, though it is a tourist destination unto itself.
The racetrack and casino are undergoing a massive renovation project expected to be completed this year, which will add a high-rise hotel and expand the casino.
The vision of Oaklawn is to be the finest racetrack, casino and resort destination in the region — not just in Arkansas — by creating memorable experiences for patrons and the community in general.
To that end, Oaklawn provides financial support to the Oaklawn Foundation, which receives funding between $750,000 to $1 million per year through an agreement with the city of Hot Springs. Through profits from the casino, the foundation finances and sponsors programs and scholarships to benefit students and seniors in Arkansas’ Garland County.
Racing fans have the rare opportunity of attending events at the start of each year, as Oaklawn’s season typically begins in mid- to late-January and runs through the first weekend in May. Simulcast racing and sports wagering are open throughout the calendar year, however.
In addition to racetrack betting, there are also table games, slot machines and video poker in the casino. Food and drink options range from concession stands to upscale restaurants.
For those interested in racing, free weekly tours of some of the 200 acres upon which Oaklawn sits are available and include a trip to the 41 barns and stalls capable of holding approximately 1,560 horses at any given time.
The new construction project began after racing season in 2019 and is expected to finish in late 2020.
Some of the upgrades include:
The main track is a one-mile sandy loam oval track with a six-furlong chute. The surface is 88% fine sand, 7% silt and 5% clay on a compacted clay base.
It is 70 feet wide on the straightaways and 80 feet wide on the turns. The distance from the last turn to the main finish line is 1,155 feet, though the length of the short stretch used for one-mile races is 825 feet.
The Arkansas Derby is Oaklawn’s most popular race, by most standards.
It takes place each April and hosts 3-year-old thoroughbreds for a nine-furlong race on the dirt track. It is a Grade 1 race with a $1 million purse, upgraded from a Grade 2 in 2010.
Initially, the race ran in 1936 with a $5,000 purse and garnered more popularity over the years. By 1960, it needed two divisions to handle the growing number of entries.
In 2004, Oaklawn celebrated the track’s 100th anniversary during the Arkansas Derby, offering a $5 million bonus for any horse that could win that race, along with the Rebel Stakes and Kentucky Derby. Smarty Jones did just that before going on to win the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes. Jones finished second in the Belmont Stakes behind long-shot Birdstone.
The other Grade 1 race held at Oaklawn is the Apple Blossom Handicap, which is open to fillies and mares who are at least 4 years old. The race comprises 1 1/16 miles on the dirt and offers a $600,000 purse.
The Apple Blossom was first run in 1958, then in 1963, and it became an annual event in 1968. It has also changed distances through the years, most recently going from 1 1/8 to 1/16 miles in 2011.
Another race with a $1 million purse is the Oaklawn Handicap, a race of 1 1/8 miles (nine furlongs) for 4-year-old and older thoroughbreds. The race was run over 8.5 furlongs with a $750,000 purse until it was changed to the current format in 1984.
Grade I Grade II Grade III
Apple Blossom Handicap Azeri Stakes Bayakoa Handicap
Arkansas Derby Oaklawn Handicap Count Fleet Sprint Handicap
Rebel Stakes Honeybee Stakes
In 1904, Southern Club owners Dan Stuart, John Condon and Charles Dugan formed the Oaklawn Jockey Club. Stuart and Condon wanted to build a track closer to the downtown area of Hot Springs and hired famous Chicago architect Zachary Taylor Davis to design the grandstand, one enclosed by glass and heated, unlike any other in the country at that time.
It was built to seat 1,500 people and cost $500,000.
The first meet of the new racetrack kicked off on Feb. 15, 1905, and ran through March 18. Opening day was so celebrated that the city declared a holiday to mark the occasion. More than 3,000 people attended the first day of races.
The track closed two years later due to political influences. During its closure, Louis Cella purchased Oaklawn after the original business partners died. He reopened the track in 1916. After he died in 1918, Cella’s brother Charles took over at Oaklawn.
There was a long 15-year racing hiatus for Oaklawn due to political difficulties, during which time the Arkansas legislature formally legalized horse racing and parimutuel betting.
Even so, Oaklawn Racing didn’t start again until March 1, 1934. The Arkansas Derby ran for the first time in 1936, and four years later, when Charles Cella died, his son and grandson took his place.
Most racetracks in America closed during World War II, but Oaklawn remained open, only canceling its spring meeting in 1945.
After World War II, the track did very well, enough to finance the renovation of the clubhouse and resurfacing of the track. By 1959, the track set a new record by averaging more than 10,000 fans and $500,000 in handle per day. Within two years, the racing season was extended to 43 days.
More renovations upgraded the facility in 1975, complete with a five-level enclosure on the grandstand, followed by a new aluminum rail several years later. By 1988, the season had been extended to 67 days.
The next major expansion took place in 2007 to offer games of skill in a casino-like environment. Slot machines were added after the Arkansas Supreme Court authorized it, though it took nearly two years to build the two-level gaming center.
Another $20 million followed a few years later, and the current renovations and expansions are set to be completed by the end of 2020.
The Cella family continues to own Oaklawn as the Oaklawn Jockey Club.
There is a life-sized bronze sculpture of American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza at the grandstand’s entrance to pay homage to one of the most famous winners at Oaklawn. American Pharoah began his Triple Crown year in 2015 at Oaklawn by winning the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby.