Oaklawn Park owner, Charles Cella.

Oaklawn Park owner, Charles Cella.

Anne M. Eberhardt

Oaklawn Owner Says He'll 'Keep This Thing Going'

Can the swarm of locusts be far behind?

That's about the only natural calamity Oaklawn Park hasn't had to endure this winter as the Hot Springs, Ark., racetrack approaches the midway point of its 52-day season.

There was the ice and snow of December and January, when 23 days of training were missed. The state was socked with power outages when power lines were downed by falling tree limbs covered with ice. Homes and vehicles around the state were damaged.

There were more nights of freezing temperatures that led the track maintenance crew to tie a season-long mark of working the track all night 10 times during the first 18 days of the meet. There were the monsoon-like conditions in February, when flash-flood warnings dotted televisions around the state.

Low-lying streets in some cities turned into small ponds. People couldn't leave their homes, much less get to Oaklawn.

"It seemed like we thawed out just in time to milldew," Oaklawn general Eric Jackson said, only partly in jest.

Tornadoes and severe thunderstorms swept through the state Saturday, Feb. 24. A crowd of only 13,923 ventured out, the lowest Saturday attendance at Oaklawn in nearly three decades.

The circumstances have sent Oaklawn's ledger into a tailspin, with no real chance of recovery in sight. Unlike baseball hitters, racetracks don't seem to snap out of slumps overnight.

Through Saturday, Feb. 24, Oaklawn's attendance was down 12%, and on-track handle down 13% from a year ago. Normally, such negative numbers would have management looking at purse reductions. Not so in this case -- at least not any time soon.

Oaklawn owner and president Charles Cella met with horsemen and assured them purses would not be cut.

"I will continue to overpay purses in an effort to keep this thing going," Cella said.

"There's a direct link between how much money is taken in and how much money is paid out in purses," Jackson said. "I don't know of any racetrack in the country or any business, period, that would operate the way we have been."

Jackson does believe Oaklawn will "bounce back," but when and how much remains a question.

"We're certainly not crying," Jackson said. "We know that the people of this state where hurt by much, much higher than normal heating bills. The money to pay those bills is not going to come out of the grocery money. The economy of Arkansas is still being hurt by the weather problems we encountered six weeks ago."

In an effort to hasten its recovery, Oaklawn has sought relief through the Arkansas General Assembly. Through a local legislator, it has requested its pari-mutuel tax be cut from 2.5% to 1%.

"This is a tax enhancer," Jackson said. "This is a tax stabilzer."
Oaklawn received major legislative relief in 1989, when the tax was reduced from 5.5. But casinos began opening in neighboring states in 1992, and racing finally returned to Texas.

"We are running out of answers," Jackson said. "We are not a profitable operation, and have ceased being a profitable operation."