Hot Spring, Arkansas 71901
Oaklawn Park is an American thoroughbred racetrack in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It is the home to The Racing Festival of the South.
In 2009, the Horseplayers Association of North America introduced a rating system for 65 Thoroughbred racetracks in North America. Of the top Ten, Oaklawn was ranked #9.
History and Information
Oaklawn Park officially opened on February 24, 1905. More than 3,000 people attended as a holiday had been declared in Hot Springs. During these early years the track only ran six races a day, similar to British cards. Political problems in the state forced the closure of Oaklawn in 1907. During this time of closure, the track was sold to Louis Cella as the original business partners had both died. The track reopened in 1916 under the auspices of Business Men's League of Hot Springs.
In 1918, Louis Cella died and the ownership of the track was transferred to his brother, Charles. Following this transfer the track ran off and on due to the Arkansas political climate racing returned to the track permanently. In 1934, the track began a modern meeting with a larger card and attracted many horse racing fans to the "Spa." The track increased purses in 1935 to become competitive with the best tracks across the country.
The first Arkansas Derby was run in 1936 for a purse of $5,000. By this time the track ran a thirty-day race meeting. On October 29, 1940, Charles G. Cella died and the presidency of Oaklawn transferred to his son, John G. Cella (1909-1968). In 1941 purses again hit a record for the largest purses in Oaklawn history. By 1943, the Arkansas Derby had a purse of $10,000. Unlike most American tracks Oaklawn stayed open in 1944 but World War II caught up with Oaklawn Park and the track was closed in 1945. Following the defeat of Japan a 30-day late autumn and winter season was held at Oaklawn.
After the end of the war the track hit unprecedented levels of prosperity. This financed a major clubhouse renovation and a resurfacing of the track. Throughout the 1950's the track continued to climb in handle, attendance and purses. In 1961, the track extended the season to 43 days. In 1962 the track had such a good year that it reached the five spot on the most profitable and successful tracks in North America.
By 1965, the Arkansas Derby was a $50,000 stakes and one that could attract top Kentucky Derby prospects. J. Sweeney Grant led Oaklawn as the manager throughout this period,. He continued to expand and enhance racing at Oaklawn Park. In 1968, Charles J. Cella, the current President of Oaklawn Park, succeeded his father into that position following John G. Cella's unexpected death.
In 1971, J. Sweeney Grant, under whom Oaklawn had enjoyed 16 years of remarkable growth, died. W. T. Bishop replaced him and the track continued to thrive. The Arkansas Derby became a $100,000 stakes in 1972 and the following the year the Fantasy Stakes, a prep race to the Kentucky Oaks, was first run. The Racing Festival of the South was created in 1974. The festival is a week with one stakes race everyday leading up to the Arkansas Derby.
In 1975 a major renovation was completed which included a five-level, glass-enclosed addition to the north end of the grandstand, near the top of the stretch. The addition included a general admission area, an extra 400 box seats and 2,500 reserved seats, a kitchen, a dining room and a private club.
In 1983, the all time record handle was established. The track reached a goal of averaging $3 million in wagering every day. For the 56-day season, the handle amounted to $168,740,923, for an average of $3,013,230 a day. The attendance for the season was 1,303,223, representing an average of 23,272. The same year the purse for the Arkansas Derby was increased to $250,000. In 1984, the purse was again lifted to $500,000.
By 1985, three decades of prosperity began to reverse. Betting declined 8.1% and attendance 3.7% as compared to 1984. Increased competition from neighboring states, a lack of Sunday racing and a lack of dates are blamed for this decline. The same year the grandstand is enlarged for the fourth time in ten years.
By 1990, the track was forced to race on Sundays. The intense competition from OTB's and racetracks in Louisiana were causes of the further decline. The track begins to recover due to the Sunday racing and more renovation at the track. In the past fifteen years Oaklawn Park has continued to do well in Arkansas although the track faces competition from casinos in neighboring states and wintertime racing in Louisiana, Florida, California, Kentucky and New York.
In 2009, Attendance is up over 5 percent from the previous year.
The track consists of a one mile dirt oval. There is no turf course at Oaklawn Park. The track buildings have undergone many renovations and are considered to be very nice. The track also has stabling for a large number of horses in state of the art barns. In 2008, Oaklawn began undergoing a new $3 million dollar addition, that includes new casino-style slot machines, poker tables, and an all new instant racing complex that has been popular since its inception in 2003. The addition will become the largest gaming facility in the state of Arkansas.