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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.
After Louis Cella died in 1918, Charles Cella became Oaklawn’s owner.
Louis Cella was the great-uncle of Charles J. Cella, Oaklawn’s owner since 1968. His grandfather, Charles, ran Oaklawn until his death in 1940.
Oaklawn was scheduled to split a full season of racing with rival Essex Park in 1917. But Essex Park burned the day after its reopening and was never rebuilt. A nine-hole public golf course occupies the property today.
A little more than a decade after reopening, Oaklawn hosted three of the most famous horses in racing history: Pan Zareta, Old Rosebud and Exterminator – all members of the National Racing and Museum Hall of Fame.
Pan Zareta, known as the “Queen of the Turf,” won all three of her starts at the 1916 Oaklawn meeting.
Under a staggering 142 pounds, Pan Zareta – in her final start of the year – was a front-running winner of a $500 handicap sprint March 30.
Pan Zareta returned to Hot Springs in 1917 and made six starts at Oaklawn, including three in eight days in March.
She split two meetings with 1914 Kentucky Derby winner Old Rosebud, trying to shake the rust of a near-three-year layoff because of a career-threatening leg injury (bowed tendon).
The first matchup in Hot Springs between racing heavyweights went to Pan Zareta, who, as the even-money favorite, was a front-running winner of a $600 handicap sprint March 24.
Old Rosebud, who carried 137 pounds, 24 more than Pan Zareta, finished third, beaten six lengths.
Old Rosebud won the April 6 rematch by two lengths, leading at every point of call in a $500 allowance race at 7 furlongs in which he set a track record (1:25 1/5).
Old Rosebud finished four lengths ahead of third-place finisher Pan Zareta, a 1972 Hall of Fame inductee after winning 76 of 151 career starts.
Pan Zareta set or equaled 11 track records, including a mile at Oaklawn (1:39) in a March 11, 1916, handicap event that carried a $300 purse.
Old Rosebud ran four times at Oaklawn in 1917. He prepped for his April 6 rematch with Pan Zareta by winning a 1-mile $750 handicap race at Essex Park March 30. He covered the distance in 1:38 4/5.
Old Rosebud was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1968 after winning 40 of 80 career starts. He was ranked No. 88 in The Blood-Horse’s top 100 thoroughbreds of the 20th century, which the weekly industry magazine published in 1999.
Oaklawn created a stakes race to honor the unofficial 1917 Horse of the Year, carding the Old Rosebud, a 1-mile event for 3-year-olds, from 1990-1997. The Old Rosebud had a $40,000 purse in 1997.
Its most famous alum, Concern, finished third in the 1994 edition before winning the $500,000 Arkansas Derby (G2) and the $3 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) later that year.
The mighty Exterminator, winner of the 1918 Kentucky Derby, made his first two starts in 1919 at Oaklawn – the $800 Hotel Como Handicap and the $800 New Era Handicap – and was a comfortable winner of both races.
The gelding finished his career with 50 victories from 100 starts, was the unofficial 1922 Horse of the Year and inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1957.
Exterminator was ranked 29th on The Blood-Horse’s top 100 thoroughbreds of the 20th century.
The Exterminator barn, among many the Cella family eventually named to honor standout horses who raced or wintered at Oaklawn, is directly behind the track’s 6-furlong chute.
Among the most famous jockeys to compete at Oaklawn during its infancy was Earl Sande, who won the riding title as an apprentice in 1918. Sande won the Triple Crown aboard Gallant Fox in 1930. Sande was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1955 after winning the Belmont Stakes five times, Kentucky Derby three times and the Preakness once.
Oaklawn continued to race until 1919, when the state again deemed racing illegal and forced the track to close.
A crowd of 5,000 attended Oaklawn’s March 1, 1934, reopening.
Among the changes was a new mutuel system that replaced the old-time board and slate, according to the Sentinel-Record.
Mutuel tickets ranging from $2 to $10 could be purchased at 24 windows, the Sentinel-Record said.
The leading rider at the 1934 meeting was Maurice “Moose” Peters, who won 33 races during the 22-day season, according to a 2010 article in the Bismarck (N.D.) Tribune.
Peters, who was born in North Dakota, was the country’s leading rider in 1934 (221 victories), according to The American Racing Manual.
Peters rode the iconic Seabiscuit as a 2-year-old in 1935 and 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral in his career debut victory at 2.
With racing now on firm footing in Hot Springs, Oaklawn ran the Arkansas Derby for the first time in 1936. Holl Image won the 1 1/8-mile race by three lengths. Holl Image finished sixth in the Kentucky Derby.
The 79th Arkansas Derby April 11 was won by American Pharoah, the first Oaklawn-raced horse to capture the Triple Crown.
But the now-defunct Arkansas Jockey Club did card a race known as the Arkansas Derby at Little Rock’s Clinton Park in the late 1890s and early 1900s, according to the Gazette.
The March 13, 1904, edition of the Gazette reported the purse for the 1904 running “will be $1,000 added” and “worth fully $1,500 to the winner” and “nearly every prominent owner racing at Hot Springs has applied for stall room at Clinton Park.”
The Arkansas Jockey Club’s 1904 meeting ran March 21-26, thus not conflicting with Essex Park’s inaugural 21-day season that began Feb. 25, according to the Sentinel-Record. A later Gazette article indicated the Arkansas Jockey Club may not hold future meetings.
The Gazette reported the distance for the Arkansas Derby at Clinton Park was a mile, an eighth of a mile shorter than the traditional distance for the race at Oaklawn.
The purse for the 1936 Arkansas Derby was $5,000, which equates to approximately $85,000 today.
The Arkansas Derby has been worth $1 million since 2004, when Cella doubled the purse to commentate Oaklawn’s “Centennial” season.
Oaklawn remembers Essex Park with the annual running of the $100,000 Essex Handicap for older horses.
Today, Oaklawn is best known as the home of the Racing Festival of the South and Arkansas Derby and over the last decade the track has played host to some of the biggest names in the sport with the latest star being leading candidate for 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner, who launched his season by winning the $500,000 Razorback Handicap and then proceeded to win four straight Grade 1 races, including the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
In 2015, the track helped launch the near-perfect season of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, who won both the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby en route to becoming the first horse in 37 years to win in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Other champions to use Oaklawn as a launching pad include Temperence Hill, Cigar, Curlin, Paseana, Azeri,Tiffany Lass, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Rachel Alexandra, Lookin At Lucky, Blind Luck, Zenyatta, Close Hatches, Work All Week and Will Take Charge.