by Greg Reinhart, HANA member
Tucked away in Hot Springs, Ark., is Oaklawn Park, which took the ninth spot on HANA’s rankings of the 65 racetracks in North America. Oaklawn hosts both the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) and the Arkansas Derby (gr. II), which have become major prep races for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I); and the Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I), which has been won by great mares like Zenyatta, Azeri, Paseana, and Bayakoa. Oaklawn Park is home to a one-mile dirt oval, but no turf course.
"Since 2004, when we celebrated our 100th anniversary, we have become a major player, especially in the 3-year-old division," said Oaklawn director of media relations Terry Wallace. "Horses like Smarty Jones , Afleet Alex, Lawyer Ron, Curlin , and others have drawn a lot of attention to play at Oaklawn. The battle for (2008) Horse of the Year (was) between two who have Oaklawn races on their past performance lines, Curlin and Zenyatta."
Oaklawn Park’s betting menu consists of win, place, and show wagering with a 17% takeout ; and, exacta, trifecta, superfecta, daily double, pick-3, pick-4, and pick-6 wagering with a 21% takeout. Additionally, 10-cent superfectas are also offered.
"We have a pick-6, which we have traditionally called ‘Classix,’ " Wallace said. "We have had it for 23 years and we understand that it is of real value when the carryover pools build up. In the last two or three years, we have not seen those large carryover pools. If we don’t have significant carryover pools, it does not generate big dollars, a la New York or California. We can only use it as a marketing tool when we get big carryovers."
Oaklawn takes care of its on-track bettors by letting them enroll in a program that tracks their wagers and offers discounts.
"Horseplayers, like Gamers (video lottery players), can join the Winner’s Circle, a player-tracking club which offers special coupons, price reductions and promotions just for them," Wallace noted. "We offer full simulcast at the same time, which means horseplayers get to play full cards from many tracks coast-to-coast while still enjoying the live racing. The admission price is only $2 and has been that way for decades. Parking also only costs $2; programs are the same. Cost-wise, Oaklawn is fan-friendly."
Oaklawn’s average field size checked in at a strong 8.8, and Wallace realizes the impact that has on the bettor.
"Field size is the number one priority to horseplayers. We hear that all the time," Wallace said. "When we recruit stables for the season we are looking for trainers who enter lots of horses, win plenty of races and are likely to stay for the entire meet."
Oaklawn Park has electronic gaming terminals at the track, which have been a boon to purses, and Wallace thinks that it has also helped bring more people to Oaklawn.
"We have electronic gaming on track and it serves us well in providing money for purses," Wallace said. "Since we started on a small scale back in 2000, our electronic games have provided over $15 million in purses. We don’t have significant crossover play, so we see no negative impact on the racing play by virtue of the presence of electronic gaming under the same roof. On the contrary, we think it might actually help, since it encourages couples to come out to the track.
"Arkansas is special in racing. The audiences here are enthusiastic and positive of nature. We average over 12,000 fans daily in a town of around 35,000. On our opening weekend we normally have more fans in attendance than at Aqueduct, Fair Grounds, Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita combined. If you are a racing fan and have not been to Hot Springs, you have missed one of the brightest lights of the sport."
These factors all added up to an overall grade of "C " for Oaklawn Park and the number nine spot on HANA’s rankings.
(Editor’s note: The views and rating system are expressly those of the bettors’ advocacy group Horseplayers Association of North America (HANA), and not affiliated with Blood-Horse Publications)