It may be the last major winter meet to get underway, but it won't be the least on a number of fronts. Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., is looking forward to a strong 2002 season because of higher purses, an increase in on-track business, and plenty of interest by horsemen.
"There's a buzz around town, and that's really positive for the Oaklawn meet this year," racing secretary Pat Pope said. "People are excited."
Oaklawn opens today, Jan. 25 and runs through April 13, when the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) is scheduled. The first condition book sets daily average purses at $225,000 to $250,000, but those numbers could be higher as the meet progresses.
For its 2001 simulcast season from April to December, handle was $50.1 million, up from $48 million in 2000. When handle from Instant Racing, a sort of pari-mutuel video lottery terminal, is factored in, total wagering for the off-season topped $56.5 million in 2001, up from $49.6 million in 2000.
"It's more positive than it has been in the past," said Bill Walmsley, president of the Arkansas Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "With additional revenue...we should up as much as $30,000 a day in purse distribution."
Walmsley said the Arkansas HBPA and Oaklawn just signed a three-year contract that extends through the 2004 meet.
Pope 1,200 horses were on the grounds as of Jan. 17, with eight more days to go before opening day. The track's 1,500 stalls are expected to be occupied, and there are nearby training facilities to accommodate even more stock.
Pope attributed the enthusiasm for the meet on four factors: a purse hike, the closing of Hialeah Park this winter, the dynamics of the region, and the fact Remington Park in nearby Oklahoma won't race live in the spring.
As for Hialeah, Pope said some horses that would have stabled there ended up at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, and some may ship to Oaklawn to race. Fair Grounds and Oaklawn, with their purse structures, provide horsemen in the region with racing opportunities for good money, so they are drawn to the region, Pope said.
The barn area at Oaklawn opened Dec. 1, and the weather thus far hasn't interfered with training schedules. More than 100 horses registered workouts on the Jan. 16 tab.
In changes for the upcoming season, Oaklawn will use color-coded saddle towels (they were blue with white numbers), and has a struck a non-exclusive deal with the TV Games Network to broadcast and offer wagering on its races. In addition, 5 1/2-furlong races will start from the six-furlong chute and end at the first finish line to protect the racing surface on the backstretch. (Previously, only one-mile races ended at the first finish line. The second finish line is necessary because of the short run into the first turn.)
Not all races are broadcast on TVG from tracks with non-exclusive contracts, though wagering through various platforms is offered on all races.
Though attendance has declined in recent years, Oaklawn is one of the few tracks in the country that still draws 15,000 to 20,000 patrons on weekend racing days under good weather conditions. Crowds of 30,000, 40,000, and even 50,000 aren't uncommon on special-event days.
Arkansas, like other racing states, faces a budget shortfall this year. Walmsley said there is a chance legislation to authorize alternative gaming such as video lottery terminals could surface this year. Oaklawn and Southland Greyhound Park, the state's other pari-mutuel facility, may have legislation in the pipeline, he said.