March 25, 2012
When this writer started this season, it was a joy simply to be part of the team. Those of you who know me, realize that I have been a homer for a long time. Oaklawn has been good to me and I’ve worked to reciprocate.
What I never expected was to find that I was directly involved in a new program at Oaklawn which would have special meaning to hundreds of fans and improve their involvement in the Oaklawn experience dramatically.
The program is entitled “Dawn at Oaklawn” and is a spin-off of sorts of a morning program which was offered in the 1990s. That program was offered on Saturday mornings in the Post Parade Restaurant. At that time Dawn at Oaklawn included a sit-down breakfast and interviews with special guests from the racing industry.
Parts of that have been retained. Where it is now improved is that now the program is conducted outside when the weather allows and gives us a better chance to get the crowd closer to the horses. Many have heard how wonderful the horses are up close, but now they get that experience. We’ve been blessed to have wonderful, articulate guests from the racing industry who really have had something to add to the knowledge of the fans in attendance and put an even better face on the sport.
Dawn at Oaklawn is not your everyday handicapping seminar, which only focuses on the races that day with a couple of selectors giving their opinion. There are plenty of opinions out there for free. But we give the fans the chance to see some of their favorite horses when they are on the track with no stress. The horses are simply doing what they were bred to do: run. Some will act like young children, playful to a degree that the fans will recognize from some of their children and grand-children in the behavior.
Sprinkled among all the equine activity will be the face of a well-known jockey or trainer, which only enhances the experience. These are working stiffs out there, putting on a show while doing their morning chores. Many in the crowd were unaware of how much work is done in the morning at a racetrack. It’s wonderful for them to become familiar with that aspect of the sport.
As trainer Ron Moquett explained to the throng on Saturday morning, “If you hear something about this game being rigged, remind them that you saw these people out early in the morning, working their tails off.” Moquett’s words served as a reminder that, if it were so easy and pre-planned, those horsemen wouldn’t have to be on the job by 5:00 a.m. each day putting in so much effort to take care of these animals.
The public appreciation has been immediate. Word of mouth is the best way to spread news and the word in this town is that Dawn at Oaklawn is the place to be on Saturday morning. I show up because I’m part of the program. But the crowds show up because they love horses and want to know more. Many will struggle to arise early enough to be on hand when the program begins even though they’re on vacation. When I’ve been on vacation, early rising wasn’t on the agenda. But it is for these folks who’ve come to Hot Springs for the Oaklawn meet and they’re entitled to our best effort. Judging by the response, it’s working.
Also offered at Dawn at Oaklawn is free coffee and orange juice, along with pastries. I know the folks on hand appreciate those freebies, but I always suspect they’d come out even if there were no breakfast items offered. Huge numbers of racing fans have supported racing at Oaklawn as long as I’ve been here, which goes back to the mid-1970s, and they are legitimate racing fans. They come in all sorts of apparel. Bib overalls are as evident as fine fashions. They represent all walks of life and come from many different locations. This past weekend I can remember answering questions for folks from Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wisconsin, as well as all over Arkansas. No telling how many different states were represented in the crowd. But we get them from all over with lots of different accents and hometowns.
Plans now are for Dawn at Oaklawn to continue each Saturday through the end of the season, Arkansas Derby Day, April 14. It looks like we’ll do a session each day of the Racing Festival of the South, Wednesday, April 11, through Derby Day. Since we start so early on Derby Day, it may be an abbreviated session. But there are so many people coming to Hot Springs, we don’t want to keep them from experiencing the program which has captured the attention of so many.
I would be naïve were I not to acknowledge the weather which has allowed us such a mild winter and spring. We are able to be outside on most days because the weather has provided mild temperatures and little rain on the right days. When we had to encounter some showers or chilly days, we have always been able to move into the paddock box section of the grandstand, which offers an excellent view of the track and treats many of the fans to a view and experience at the track which they have never before enjoyed.
With all that being said, I salute those who conceived the idea and allowed us to implement it into our Oaklawn experience. It has been fun for me and many others and the good news is that there is still lots of room for us to improve the experience with a year of programs behind us. We can and will make it even better. With that in mind, we hope fans make it their business to plan on being with us for Dawn at Oaklawn not just during the month of April, but when we gather together for racing in 2013.