Spring comes to Arkansas at the end of March, and a fine thing it is to see, especially after enduring the long weeks of winter. And the best place for watching an Arkansas spring unfold is a seat in the grandstands of a thoroughbred racetrack, in this case, the Oaklawn Jockey Club of Hot Springs, Arkansas, more commonly known among the locals as Oaklawn Park. From a grandstand seat the spectator can see some of America’s finest horses run against a backdrop of pink and white flowers generously furnished by the redbud and dogwood trees growing in the racecourse infield. It is, as they say, a veritable feast for the eyes, and by themselves the flowering trees would be satisfying enough, but there is more. For just beyond the inside rail, near the finish pole, azalea bushes strain against big clumps of red, white and purple flowers, and tulips of all shades sprout up from manicured beds, and it all culminates in front of the tote board with a topiary shaped from boxwoods that spells OAKLAWN. Like Disneyland is to California, Oaklawn Park in springtime is the happiest place in Arkansas.
Most of my Arkansas ancestors were rigid people who would never have set foot in a devil’s playground like a racetrack. This is another way of saying they played no part in the early success of Oaklawn Park, which opened in 1905, however, there is one story about my maternal grandfather that has been passed down through the family narrative. On his inaugural visit to the racetrack, sometime in the 1940’s, he laid down a wager on a claimer early in the card, only to watch it fall down in the stretch and die. Believing he had been visited by the Bird of Ill Omen, he left before the next race and never went back.
My parents attended the races infrequently, and it was always with a group of friends who went for a day of socializing. They were never particularly interested in the wagering. My mother was so frugal she had us eat cereal with a fork to save milk. There was no flexibility in a budget already strained by four children, so gambling as a vice did not appeal to her, although in the present day, an empty nest and Indian casinos have caused a reversal in her thinking. My father, never a fan of any sport, went along for the fellowship and the Bloody Mary’s, not necessarily in that order.
So I have made the case that my affection for Oaklawn Park was not something handed down to me through the generations, like a family bible or a silver tea service. I acquired it over time and through conscious effort, beginning in the early 1970’s. I spent many afternoons in the grandstands with friends from school, then later with my girl friend, who became my fiancé, and then my wife. And then later still with new friends she and I made together as a couple. Our group was known to get a little drunk and loud sometimes, and our behavior would probably embarrass me today, but like most young people we were the center of our own universe, thoroughly unconcerned with appearances.
I have a friend who is a farmer, and since the Oaklawn season falls between the autumn harvest and spring planting, it was convenient for him to attend the races, which he and his father did almost every day for many years. At one time they had a small ownership position in a racehorse or two, and they became acquainted with other owners and trainers, and because of this my friend began to see himself as someone who had inside connections. He would shamelessly drop the names of this trainer or that one, the most impressive being the legendary Jack Van Berg, inferring that he was in possession of information that foretold the outcome of a race. But, in fact, his picks finished out of the money with alarming regularity, so as a precaution, a system was devised to immediately eliminate every horse my friend recommended without a second thought, and this sped up the handicapping process considerably, without any noticeable downside.
Arkansas is a small state, and the race meet at Oaklawn Park could always be counted on to draw more people, year upon year, than any other event, Razorback football games included. This fact was not lost on an astute political class, who used the racetrack as a place to see and be seen. Some days you couldn’t throw a handful of losing tickets and not hit a state legislator. Congressmen, senators and governors were often found glad-handing and back-slapping in the grandstands, making people smile by telling them lies. One particular Saturday I remember watching from a distance as a mop-headed young governor charmed the pants off the crowd with his now legendary charisma. History records it was a gift that took him all way to the Oval Office.
Oaklawn Park is like most racetracks, meaning that the crowd, on any given day, is a microcosm of our society. Upstairs in the private lounges were the upper crust, safely insulated from the riff-raff. As a group these were loud people, and they tended to drink heavily and trip over themselves trying to impress one another. The lower end of the social strata occupied the first floor, underneath the grandstands, in what could accurately be called the bowels of the building, a place that I always thought had an air of seedy sadness. That’s where one found the people who picked through the betting slips that littered the floor, looking for a winner thrown away by mistake.
Between the two extremes were the rest of us: the working stiffs, hippies, rednecks, sorority girls, drunken frat boys, young Republicans and Baptist’s on hiatus from being Baptist. Most of us were there to forget our troubles for a few hours and have a good time, and we always did, especially toward the end of the meet, when the horses ran for big purses in front of big crowds, and the gods usually blessed us with fair weather. “The sun always shines on Oaklawn Park.” – so says the unofficial slogan of the racetrack. On pristine weekends in April, when the infield was finally thrown open, the human spectacle that ensued was surpassed only by the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.
It’s because of Thomas Wolfe that none of us can ever go home again. Thanks for nothing, Tom. It’s a shame, too, because I would give almost anything to recreate those April days I spent in the Oaklawn grandstands a generation ago with people I cared about. But too much time has ticked away and too many things have changed. Luckily no one has died, but there have been several divorces, and some, like me, have moved far away. But I’ll always have the memories, so they will have to do. Fortunately they are many, and they are clear, and I can ride them back through time to the happiest place in Arkansas, and that ain’t half bad.