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Oaklawn's highlight reel: 100 years of racing thrills
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Racing in Hot Springs was not founded by Oaklawn Park, but it has been defined by the 100-year-old track, which has persevered through wars, weather, and political setbacks to carve out its place in history. For all those associated, it has been quite a ride.
Oaklawn was incorporated in 1904, but more than 100 years before that, Indian tribes held races in the Hot Springs area. Tracks such as Sportsman's and Essex shot up in Hot Springs after 1875, when a law prohibiting racing in the streets led to the need for grandstands. Oaklawn opened its doors in 1905 and has outlasted all the competition, largely because of the passion of the Cella family of St. Louis.
The Cellas have been at the track's helm since its inception and have built Oaklawn into one of the racing's most respected meets, despite the challenge of being located in a small, remote community in the Ouachita Mountains.
Charles Cella, who has been the president of Oaklawn for the past 35 years, said making Oaklawn a success has simply been a labor of love for his family.
"We've had many offers [to sell Oaklawn] through the years, and sometimes I scratched my head and wondered why we didn't pursue them," he said. "But it's the tradition. I remember as a young boy coming down there with my father and grandfather. I really think that's what makes it so darn special with me. I can't really explain it."
Cella has helped Oaklawn close out its first 100 years in powerful fashion. He was behind the creation of the Racing Festival of the South, and also was at the helm when Oaklawn became the first track to simulcast across state lines, sending its signal to Chicago.
To ensure the track's place in racing into the next century, Cella has put up a $5 million bonus for the horse who can sweep the Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby, and Kentucky Derby in 2004.
Here are some of the highlights of Oaklawn's colorful past.
1900's to 1920's
John Condon, Dan Stuart, and C.B. Dugan chose Hot Springs as a site for a racetrack around 1900 and brought on brothers Louis and Charles Cella, who operated five other tracks, as partners. Oaklawn Jockey Club was incorporated in 1904, and $500,000 was put up to build Oaklawn.
Louis and Charles Cella are the respective great-uncle and grandfather of Charles Cella, the current Oaklawn president, giving the family 100 years of ownership of Oaklawn.
Racing made its official debut on Feb. 5, 1905, after some exhibition races were run in 1904. The original grandstand, little of which still exits, was enclosed with glass, making it the first of its kind in America. But just as things were going well for Oaklawn, a bill outlawing racing in Arkansas passed, and Oaklawn was forced to close in 1907.
Racing resumed on March 11, 1916. A year later, two Hall of Fame horses competed against each other at the track: Old Rosebud, winner of the Kentucky Derby, and the spectacular racemare Pan Zareta.
Oaklawn hosted more talent in 1918, when apprentice Earl Sande won the riding title at the track. During his Hall of Fame career, Sande won the Triple Crown in 1930 aboard Gallant Fox.
Exterminator, who is also in the Hall of Fame, arrived at Oaklawn a year later and made two starts at the track. He won them both, taking the Hotel Como and New Era handicaps.
Politicians halted racing again in 1920, however, and Oaklawn was not able to resume competition until 1934.
Racing returned before a crowd of 5,000 on March 1, 1934. The leading rider at the meet was Maurice "Moose" Peters, who went on to win the national title. Two years later, in 1936, Oaklawn launched the Arkansas Derby.
The race would come to define the track. Holl Image won the first Arkansas Derby, earning $4,110 of the $5,000 purse attached to the race by Oaklawn. For 2004, the purse has been kicked up to $1 million, a record in Arkansas.
Through the years, such horses as Nodouble, Traffic Mark, No Le Hace, Temperence Hill, Bold Ego, Sunny's Halo, the filly Althea, Tank's Prospect, Demons Begone, Proper Reality, Dansil, Pine Bluff, and Concern have won the Arkansas Derby.
1940's to 1950's
Count Fleet was in training at Oaklawn prior to winning the 1943 Triple Crown under Johnny Longden, although the colt never raced at the track. It was rumored, however, that he would start in the Arkansas Derby.
"Longden was riding here that year, he won the title, and Count Fleet was here training, and some of the local media and some in the racing office thought he was going to run in the Arkansas Derby," said Don Grisham, who covered Oaklawn from 1960 to 1991 for Daily Racing Form.
"He had been training excellent," Grisham said. "But they shipped him out late in the meeting, and he went to New York, then on to Kentucky."
During this era, Mrs. Emil Denemark, generally believed to be the mother-in-law of gangster Al Capone, rose to prominence as an owner at Oaklawn, winning titles in 1940, 1941, 1949, 1950, and 1959. She won the Arkansas Derby in 1940 with Super Chief.
Capone built a barn and house near the backstretch of Oaklawn, and it served as one of his residences when he visited Hot Springs. It was a time when the town boasted casinos, and high-profile visitors to Oaklawn included baseball great Babe Ruth. Oaklawn eventually bought the barn and house that Capone built, and it named the barn the Count Fleet.
Also during the 1940's, trainer Henry Forrest became a dominant force at Oaklawn. He won his first of 11 titles at the track in 1947 and captured eight straight Oaklawn training championships from 1949 to 1956. Bob Holthus, who began training at Oaklawn in 1952, ranks second to Forrest with nine Oaklawn titles.
Holthus, whose longevity has made him something of a local legend, has the distinction of having the key to Oaklawn. "I've had it since 1958 or 1959, somewhere along in there when they built the [western] part of the grandstand," said Holthus.
"I get a lot of ribbing about having the key to the place, but the reason I have it was, during training hours this building wasn't open. [Oaklawn] gave me the key so I could open the door down here and other trainers could come in out of the weather."
To this day, Holthus still watches his horses train from the western end of the grandstand at Oaklawn. And also to this day, a record win payoff from 1950 still stands. Phaltup won the nightcap on March 7, 1950, and paid $350.80 on a $2 ticket.
Oaklawn closed out its 1959 meet averaging 10,276 patrons a day and $584,531 in handle at a time when there was no offtrack network of simulcast betting.
1960's and 1970's
During the 1960's, Marion Van Berg and W. Hal Bishop locked up every ownership title at Oaklawn. Van Berg won the title eight times from 1960 to 1970, while Bishop won three titles during that time. Bishop was also the leading trainer in 1961, 1962, and 1964.
Oaklawn created the Racing Festival of the South in 1974, and the concept of bundling a package of major stakes every day for a week has been a hit, copied by other racetracks. Among the Horses of the Year who have raced during the festival are Cigar, Criminal Type, Black Tie Affair, Favorite Trick, Lady's Secret, and Azeri.
The festival has accounted for some of Oaklawn's biggest days. A rain-soaked, record crowd of 71,203 turned out to watch Rampage win the Arkansas Derby in 1986. It was also the largest turnout for a sporting event in Arkansas.
Also in the 1970's, Terry Wallace was named announcer at Oaklawn. He has not missed a day calling races since he joined the track in 1975.
Some of the best horses to race at Oaklawn were Cox's Ridge, who won the Oaklawn Handicap in 1978; Susan's Girl, who won the Apple Blossom in 1975; and San Juan Hill, who upset Alydar in the 1979 Oaklawn Handicap.
The reign of jockey Pat Day began in 1983, when he won his first of 12 consecutive riding titles at Oaklawn Park. His run continued through 1994. One of the most memorable races at Oaklawn this decade was Althea's win against male rivals in the 1984 Arkansas Derby.
"She had gotten beat in the Fantasy, and when they said she would be left here for the Arkansas Derby a week later, we didn't think we heard right," said Grisham. "She ran the fastest Arkansas Derby, in 1:46.45."
Other top horses to race at Oaklawn in the 1980's were Bold N Determined, who won the Fantasy in 1980 and the Apple Blossom in 1981; Wild Again, who won the Oaklawn Handicap in 1984; Proper Reality; and Bayakoa.
Former President Bill Clinton grew up in Hot Springs. Clinton's mother, Virginia Clinton, was a regular at Oaklawn.
One of Oaklawn's greatest races and one of its most scandalous both happened during the 1990's. Cigar's win over a game Silver Goblin in the 1995 Oaklawn Handicap is regarded by many as one of the greatest races in the history of the track. Cigar was inadvertently hit on the snout with the whip of Silver Goblin's rider in upper stretch, yet he went on to a 2 1/2-length win under Jerry Bailey.
The Oaklawn Handicap was named 1995's race of the year by ESPN.
A few years later, in 1999, the maiden Valhol won the Arkansas Derby but was later stripped of the purse when his rider, Billy Patin, was found to have carried an electrical device. Certain was later placed first in that year's Arkansas Derby.
Other horses to race at Oaklawn in the 1990's included Paseana, who won the Apple Blossom in 1992 and 1993.
Azeri has been the big horse so far this decade at Oaklawn, with rousing wins in the 2002 and 2003 runnings of the Apple Blossom. Last year, she showed exceptional grit to get past a game Take Charge Lady in the Apple Blossom in a race that many consider to be one of the most exciting ever at Oaklawn.
Also during this decade, Oaklawn introduced Instant Racing, a parimutuel game that plays like a slot machine, to fight back against the expansion of gaming in nearby states. This year, Instant Racing will provide $1 million for purses at Oaklawn.