For a complete decade by decade history of Oaklawn, click here.
Oaklawn wasn’t the first racetrack in Hot Springs, but it’s still going strong today, the lone survivor of what was a fairly crowded central Arkansas landscape more than a century ago.
Historical data indicates a track called Sportsman’s Park was operating in the late 1890s. Essex Park, adjacent to a major train route from Malvern to Hot Springs, opened on Malvern Road in 1904. Even Little Rock, 50 miles northeast of Hot Springs, had a race meet.
By 1920, Oaklawn was the only track still standing.
Oaklawn’s original owners included John Condon and Dan Stuart, who also ran Southern Club and Turf Exchange, a popular downtown Hot Springs night spot. It was billed as a “Gentlemen’s Resort of the Highest Class” in a 1901 advertisement in the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record newspaper.
The men formed the Oaklawn Jockey Club in 1904 and decided to build a track closer to downtown Hot Springs (Essex Park was roughly four miles southeast of what would become Oaklawn).
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, “the name 'Oaklawn' came from the rural community in which the track would be built, which in turn took its name from what Peter LaPatourel, an early settler to the area, called his home, around which a large stand of ancient oaks stood.”
Among Oaklawn’s other founding partners were brothers Louis and Charles Cella of St. Louis, whose family operated several racetracks in the Midwest.
Celebrated Chicago architect Zachary Taylor Davis was hired to design Oaklawn’s glass-enclosed, heated grandstand – among the first of its kind in the country – in 1904. The grandstand could reportedly seat 1,500.
Davis designed Wrigley Field, the longtime home of the Chicago Cubs, a decade later.
An article in the Los Angeles Herald newspaper said Condon’s group spent approximately $500,000 to build Oaklawn and racing secretary Nathanson “found himself the most sought after person in Hot Springs” because of the stampede for stalls in advance of the anticipated 1905 opening.
According to an advertisement in the Sentinel-Record, the Oaklawn Jockey Club’s inaugural meeting ran Feb. 13-March 18, 1905, with six races carded daily. First post time was 2:15 p.m.
But severe winter weather – temperatures were well below zero across much of Arkansas Feb. 13 – apparently delayed Oaklawn’s initial racing program until Feb. 15, according to the Arkansas Gazette newspaper.
Grandstand admission for the 1905 meeting, according to the Sentinel-Record, was $1.50 for men and $1 for women. Box seats were an additional $1.
The Hot Springs Railroad Co., according to the Sentinel-Record, offered a special race-day service beginning at 12:30 p.m.
Cars would make several stops in downtown Hot Springs, including the famed Arlington Hotel – approximately 2 ½ miles north of Oaklawn at the “Y” intersection on the corner of Central Avenue and Fountain Street – Majestic Hotel and Park Junction and carry fans to the grandstand. Returning cars would leave after the fifth race, others following the last race.
The roundtrip fare was 20 cents.
According to the Sentinel-Record, Oaklawn had 130 entries for its Feb. 28 program, a “record number” received by a racing secretary in the “Middle West.”
Oaklawn was able to card an additional race that day, with two of the races drawing 15 entrants and another 14.
Unlike today, when the majority of Oaklawn’s races are run at 6 furlongs, a mile or a mile and a sixteenth, the distance of the races Feb. 28, 1905, varied wildly.
Two of the races were 3 ½ furlongs and one each were at 5 ½ furlongs, 6 furlongs, one mile, one mile and 100 yards and a mile and one-sixteenth.
Although hurdle races were listed in some newspaper results for Essex Park, Oaklawn apparently only had flat racing.
Oaklawn also conducted meets in 1906 and 1907 before anti-gambling reform swept the state and closed the track until 1916.
By the time Oaklawn reopened for a reported 30-day season in 1916, Condon and Stuart had died, leaving the Cella brothers in control of the track.