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OPINION | WALLY HALL: Jewel of Oaklawn is starting to sparkle

by Wally Hall | April 21, 2021 at 2:30 a.m.

HOT SPRINGS -- Sounds of progress were everywhere, even on a day off from racing.

It is a family affair for friends and for the state of Arkansas.

It is about thoroughbred racing, Hot Springs and Garland County.

Bob Baffert walked by, the Hall of Fame trainer and one of the most powerful men in the racing industry.

He was there for his appeal of a suspension, but he made time to tell Louis Cella -- the CEO and president of Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort -- he was truly impressed with what he was seeing.

Oaklawn still is a grand old racetrack -- updated, of course -- with all of its nooks, crannies and charm.

The casino, which began as Instant Racing and saved horse racing in Arkansas, is complete. While it has a Las Vegas style, it is friendlier with natural light streaming in. Try finding that in any other casino.

The new hotel is nearing completion, the last of the $100 million update for Oaklawn that includes too many amenities to list.

Today will be the official news conference to announce when the hotel will be finished. Hopefully by the final weekend, but most of the 198 rooms are ready for occupancy.

Not just a hotel, but a 5-star luxury resort and spa that was intended to be open in January, but delays -- many caused by the coronavirus pandemic -- kept pushing things back.

Long before the virus, beautiful vanities had been ordered from a specialty shop in China -- Wuhan, of course -- and when they were being shipped, a storm raged in the Pacific Ocean and 47 of the vanities now rest at the bottom of the ocean.

Getting replacements was about as easy as hopping up Mount Everest on one foot.

The Bugler -- a fine-dining restaurant opened in December -- and The First Turn -- a bar centered around the track's first turn, of course -- are ready with indoor and outdoor seating that's climate controlled.

The conference center -- which can hold up to 1,500 people for a concert or convention, and 1,000 for a sit-down dinner -- should be finished this week, and next week the pool with cabanas is expected to be ready.

Even with a few walls with no paint and sounds from dozens of construction workers, it is easy to see what the finished product will look like and be about.

It celebrates thoroughbred racing.

There's a wall of trophies and cups that honor the great racehorse and stud Nodouble, who was bred in Arkansas and won the Arkansas Derby, Hawthorne Gold Cup, and the Santa Anita, Brooklyn and Metropolitan handicaps.

The entrance to The First Turn is like a small museum with racing trophies from all over the world.

Most of the color schemes and decorations were coordinated by Rochelle Cella, Louis Cella's wife, who is from my dad's hometown of England.

She's a decorator in St. Louis, but the couple have made Hot Springs their primary home during the project that combines horse racing, casino gaming and tourism with elegance.

There are four types of rooms, and half of the 198 face the track. The junior suite that was visited was amazingly comfortable with nice photographs of Oaklawn's history, two giant TVs, a big and comfortable bed, huge bathroom and an iPad that visitors can use to read the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Hot Springs Sentinel-Record, Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

Each room has Mountain Valley Water and West Rock coffee keeping the Arkansas touches intact.

The entire facility is a masterpiece of history and culture, and its all for Arkansas.

Print Headline: Jewel of Oaklawn is starting to sparkle

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