Hope springs eternal at Oaklawn Park

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Over 110 years ago, Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas opened for business and they all came – big sports stars, mob guys, politicians. They came for the gambling and natural hot springs bath houses. And they kept coming to this historical spot.

Yes, there was always political trouble and the track closed down in 1907 but reopened in 1916 for new owner Louis Cella under the name of the Business Men’s League of Hot Springs.

In 1918 after Cella died it was transferred to his brother Charles and when he died it stayed in the Cella family. The track and spa grew to become the legendary hang out of notable people like Big Al Capone, Babe Ruth and others.

2014 Road to Kentucky Derby

2014 Kentucky Derby Top 22 Point Getters

It is also said to be the first place for what we know as spring training for baseball. The first team to show up in Hot Springs was the Chicago White Stockings back in 1916 as team owner and sporting goods top gun A.G. Spalding wanted a new way to get the players in shape. He thought the hot springs would do the job of boiling out all the alcohol in their systems as the players in those days were hard core drinkers.

It must have worked. The White Stockings won the pennant that year and other teams like the Cleveland Spiders, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds came here and the players soaked in the warm soothing waters.

Ruth fell in love with Hot Springs, especially the golf and, of course, the race track. It is noted that before he played his first regular season game in 1915 he lost his entire pay check for the year totaling $2,500. The boys loved the big guy!

The one thing that struck last week when I was at the Arkansas Derby (my first trip to Hot Springs) was how friendly the people were. You just felt like you have been going there forever.

During our three days at the track, all the teller windows were open with hundreds of clerks – all friendly. I mean real friendly. There were just a few auto teller machines, which I usually prefer but on this trip I really enjoyed going up to the windows. The only time you really had to wait in line was on Derby Day.

Also, there was no price gouging. You could get an ice cold beer for $5 plus the food was very reasonable and not expensive.

When Danza came rolling home at 40-1 in the Arkansas Derby it really opened up this year’s Kentucky Derby even more than it already was. This will be one exciting race on the first Saturday in May.

Just bringing up price gouging leads me to Churchill Downs, which has decided to raise the takeout in their upcoming meet that includes the Derby. What a bunch of you know what. If it wasn’t for the Kentucky Derby no one would even care about Louisville and their big new tote board.

On the other hand the Great Race Place is beautiful and I mean ­beautiful Santa Anita has moved in the right direction with their .14% takeout players pick five which has become a huge success and the now rolling daily doubles with a lower take out. As a horse bettor, I salute them and say thanks.

If horse racing is to move forward we need to keep bettors, not tell them we just want your money to fill our own coffers like the management of Churchill Downs has done. 

So who will win this year’s Kentucky Derby? Right now the favorite California Chrome looks the one but his trainer has said he will send him straight to the Downs and have no works on the course. That doesn’t bode well with me so I will be looking elsewhere.

Stay tuned for more in this muddled Kentucky Derby. If you have a chance next year, put the Arkansas Derby on your bucket list and check out some great historical spots downtown. 

Richard Saber, a former director of race and sports at the famed Stardust book, is GamingToday’s horse racing and sports handicapper.  Follow Richard on Twitter @SabesBet. Contact Richard at [email protected].

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