There are many of you out there, delicately fingering your highly coveted tickets dated April 3 and/or 9, momentarily giddy with the thought that you were soooo close to being there - at the Race for the Ages. And now your hapless soul dwells in the musty cellar of despair, especially if you purchased the tickets on eBay for an absurd sum of cash.
So Rachel Alexandra is not going to Oaklawn to race against Zenyatta in the Apple Blossom (gr. 1), and now you’re tempted to shred your tickets into itty-bitty pieces. But wait! You should go! You should go because, let’s face it, it’s all about horse racing!
And in the spirit of many great explorers, like Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea and her two whiny papooses (“Are we there yet?”), I ventured deep into the Ouachita wilderness to go on an Oaklawn Park reconnaissance mission.
The adventure begins last week Friday at the Boll Weevil Pawn Shop and Superstore at the corner of Central Ave and Woodlawn in Hot Springs, situated across the street from the racetrack. No, I was not securing wagering funds but rather I was parking my car. And it cost me $10 to park in their lot. I just about coughed up a hairball. This required some investigation, so I interrogated the friendly neighborhood Boll Weevil Pawn Shop clerk. The clerk informed me that parking is roughly $10 at the local businesses on race days, however the prices increases to $20 on Saturdays and Sundays. And on Arkansas Derby Day?? You’re looking at parking prices ranging $40 to upwards of $100 to park (cough). Rumor has it that some guy opens a snow cone stand along Central Ave during racing season and funds his retirement with the parking fees.
By the way, there is a parking lot associated with the racetrack and according to Mr. Boll Weevil Pawn Shop clerk it costs $2 to park – but only if you are a season ticket holder. And even then on Arkansas Derby Day they're out of luck as the whole parking lot is reserved for employees.
Entry into the racetrack was exceptionally reasonable at a couple of dollars for general admission. When we first entered the grandstand, my eight-year-old daughter made a very keen observation: “This place smells!” Of course, she would be referring to the saddling paddock that is actually situated inside of the grandstand by the main entry. There’s not a whole lot of elbow room for a multitude of horseplayers to observe the horses in the paddock, and there doesn’t appear to be any kind of walking ring at the facility. So rest assured, if Rachel Alexandra had been racing next week, you probably wouldn’t have been able to see her in the saddling paddock anyway.
It was a gorgeous sunny Friday afternoon for our racetrack adventure so we naively believed that we could enjoy the races lounging on the apron, enjoying the warm sunshine. I was informed that there were “concrete benches” outside, available first come first serve. It should be noted that most people in the English-speaking world would refer to these “concrete benches” as “steps”. At first I was rather shocked that Oaklawn would not have actual benches or outside seating, but then it struck me – racing is from January through the beginning of April, and who the heck is going to sit around outside during the winter? That said, one can easily mill about the lower floor of the grandstand – outside to inside to the mutuels to the snack bar. And the mutuel clerks – there are plenty of clerks - were friendly and very efficient.
The grandstand itself is peppered with lot of racing paraphernalia and photos, most notably some very clever horse racing cartoon murals adorning many walls. Surprisingly, box seats are not very exotic; they’re placed throughout the upper floors of the grandstand in a variety of locations. Come to think of it, I don’t recall that they even had their own TV monitors like I’ve seen at other racetracks. They’re just comprised of a few plain ol’ chairs in a box.
Ladies: Beware of Potty Parity! Admittedly, I have been spoiled at Lone Star Park as there is always plenty of bathroom stalls, and the restrooms are clean and well maintained during live racing. Anyway, the Ladies’ room at Oaklawn Park has 4 to 5 stalls each, and I was rather disgusted as to its condition by the 8th race. And this was on a day with an attendance of 8000 people!
So perhaps from my little expedition you gleaned that parking may not be so ample or affordable, outside seating is rather lacking, and it may behoove you to refrain from imbibing an excessive amount of liquid refreshment, but the facts remain that Hot Springs embraces horse racing and Oaklawn Park makes a remarkable effort to have an exciting meet.
And here’s a bonus: After a hard day at the racetrack, there are plenty of places to go for a nice long hot bath!