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They flocked by the hundreds into the Hot Springs Convention Center on a recent Tuesday night for Oaklawn Park's annual employee awards banquet. The crowd at this event gets bigger every year as what was once a sleepy little racetrack becomes one of the top attractions in this part of the country.

I date myself by referring to it as Oaklawn Park. It's now marketed as Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort. A casino expansion will open next month. It will be followed later in 2020 and early 2021 by a steakhouse, a spa, a conference center and a luxury hotel. The next awards banquet will be moved to January 2021 so it can be the first event held in Oaklawn's conference center.

I go way back with Oaklawn. I grew up about 35 miles away and loved thoroughbred racing as a boy. I remember watching the Triple Crown on television in 1973 as Secretariat became the first horse to win all three legs since Citation in 1948. I was 13 years old when Secretariat won. Four years later, I was glued to the television again as Seattle Slew captured a Triple Crown. The next year, captivated by the history of Kentucky's Calumet Farm, I rooted in vain for Alydar as the Calumet horse finished second to Affirmed in all three Triple Crown races.

By the spring of 1979, I was a freshman at Ouachita Baptist University while also working as the sports editor of the Daily Siftings Herald in Arkadelphia. That sports editor's job gave me an excuse to make the short drive to Oaklawn each afternoon of the race meet for three years. I attended my first Kentucky Derby (I've now been to eight) in 1981, and by the spring of 1982 was covering Oaklawn for the Arkansas Democrat. Those of us who were regulars in the Oaklawn press box in those days were like an extended family.

I felt old at this month's employee banquet as I looked around the room and realized how few people I knew. I felt better when a veteran Oaklawn employee walked over to me and said: "I hate to admit it, but I don't have a clue who a lot of these folks are."

For those who love thoroughbred racing, the good news is that Oaklawn is owned by the Cella family of St. Louis, who have been devoted to the sport for more than a century and have used new casino revenues to increase purses to unprecedented levels.

"Since 2015, we've built 14 barns and have plans to build more next year," says Louis Cella, who took over as Oaklawn's president following the death of his father Charles Cella two years ago this month. Charles Cella became president in 1968 following the death of his father, John G. Cella.

"We've also built a new track kitchen and stable gate this year for the benefit of our horsemen," Louis Cella says. "We've implemented a rigorous maintenance program for our track to make it one of the best in the country."

During the off-season, track superintendent Kevin Seymore oversaw an operation in which the entire track cushion was removed, screened, mixed with new materials and applied back to the track an inch at a time. Oaklawn's barn area opened Nov. 25, and the track opened for training Dec. 2. Opening day for the 2020 race meet is Jan. 24.

Wayne Smith, the Oaklawn general manager, was at the Breeders' Cup races at Santa Anita in November to recruit horses, jockeys and trainers for the 2020 Oaklawn meet. He was joined by Rick Hammerle, Oaklawn's racing coordinator. Smith then flew to Louisville and joined Pat Pope, Oaklawn's racing secretary, in visiting with horsemen at Churchill Downs. Jed Doro, Oaklawn's vice president of racing, visited horsemen at Remington Park in Oklahoma City.

Their efforts have paid off. California-based trainers Jerry Hollendorfer, Phil D'Amato, Mark Glatt, Richard Baltas, Peter Miller and John Sadler are expected to have horses at Oaklawn. Glatt said he has been allotted 18 stalls. Hollendorfer plans to have about 25 horses at Oaklawn.

Meanwhile, Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey said he plans to send 15 horses to Oaklawn. McGaughey is based in New York and south Florida these days. It's the first time since the early 1980s that McGaughey has had this many horses at Oaklawn. McGaughey's son Reeve will accompany the horses to Hot Springs. The McGaugheys are now working for Arkansan John Ed Anthony's Shortleaf Stable.

"It's a good opportunity for my son to come in there and work for an outfit like Shortleaf," Shug McGaughey told the Daily Racing Form. "John Ed Anthony helped me get started years and years ago. With the dirt opportunities that are there, with the way purses are, and with what they're trying to accomplish at Oaklawn, we thought it was a very good opportunity."

A constitutional amendment passed last year by Arkansas voters, which allows casinos in four locations, mandates that a percentage of the taxes paid must go to racing purses. With Southland in West Memphis phasing out dog racing, all of that money eventually will go to Oaklawn. When all four casinos are operating (legal challenges will run out at Russellville and a casino will be built there to join what's at Hot Springs, West Memphis and Pine Bluff), it could mean $10 million a year in additional purse money.

"Racing has been Oaklawn's DNA for 115 years, and I plan to continue the legacy my family began in 1904," Louis Cella says. "As the fourth generation of my family to be at the helm of Oaklawn, I can unequivocally state that we're completely dedicated to the great sport of thoroughbred racing. Our goal is for Oaklawn to become a destination casino resort that ensures our status as the No. 1 tourism attraction in Arkansas."

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 12/18/2019

Print Headline: Racing toward success

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