Horse Racing: The House that Oaklawn Will Build

Oaklawn Park’s pricey expansion is just the latest occurrence in the ever-evolving sport.

Updated: Jan. 9, 2019 • 10:00 PM ET


Plenty of races can be seen on weekends in the early months at Oaklawn.

Throughout history…wait…that’s a pretty sweeping statement. Let’s start again. There are legions of examples of people defying the odds and pushing the envelope of what was possible — splitting the atom, the MRI machine, the personal computer, the Starbucks Macchiato…enough grandstanding.

At any rate, as January wanes in the new year, it’s nearly time for the start of a new meet at historic Oaklawn Park (OP, the abbreviation you will find in the form at the track) in Hot Springs, Ark. The track is one of the gems of American horse racing, seeing time move slowly and plod along (they have never installed a turf course), dawned by the South at the beginning of the 20th century. Short of sounding like a watch commercial or soap opera, my point is that Oaklawn is about tradition and history.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but one wouldn’t expect an over-emphasis on gaming and wagering at the expense of the sport — reality sets in — this past year, news broke from Mount Cella (the family that has curated and built OP) that the track would be sinking $100 million into an expansion that would be epic in scope and proportion — the biggest and best since WW2.

At first, this news sounded highly disconcerting, immediately thinking that OP was placing too much emphasis on cards, slots and the casino. A wedding venue? Presidential suites? Horses would once again serve as window dressing in the long run; the seediness that follows the sport like a trail of slug slime would be as heavy as ever.

I ruminated on these feelings for some time. How will these developments at OP affect the future of racing in the short and the long term? Two examples, however, bear witness and make me second guess my initial reaction.

First, in the short-term, two stories astounded me, both from venerable racing entities that just tabulated their handle counts for 2018. Gulfstream Park and the New York Racing Association Tracks (NYRA-Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga) reported impressive numbers.

Based near Ft. Lauderdale, Gulfstream Park took in a record $2.010 billion in 2018, as folks apparently went to the windows and online in droves. The second running of the $16 million G1 Pegasus World Cup Invitational at the park last January was a smashing success, and this year has the potential to be even more impressive.

The NYRA was equal to the task, as they raised $2,113,408,494, with Saratoga being once again the focal point.

In other words, 2018 was a banner year. One could interpret in these numbers that the globe has a gambling addiction; or more accurately, it proves that horse race wagering is alive and well. Thus, Oaklawn's product, a gaming center coupled with a hotel, convention space and spa, might be just the ticket to attract more of a handle.

I trust they’ve done their homework.

Coupled with this build, they’re also extending the racing season from January into May — a shrewd decision, to be sure. Having live racing on Derby Day can have its pros and cons. For the most part, though, people love live racing, even casual fans; and betting should be motioning upward.

In the long-term, OP's investment speaks to a broader movement in sports betting that was helped along last summer by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to allow wagering on a bevy of athletic events. New Jersey was the first to make a hole in the proverbial fence, and other states are making arrangements to follow suit.

The process will be long and arduous, but several horse racing news outlets perked their ears up this past week when the venerable horse racing channel TVG (strangely named Television Games) preempted the early races at some tracks in place of a handicapping show that was sponsored by its sister company. The show isn’t really the story, rather the timing of when it aired was more significant.

It speaks to the idea that gaming, a billion-dollar parlay, is a global phenomenon. TVG is, like a block of marble, being molded and shaped into something wholly different.

Many pundits raised their eyebrows when they saw races being shelved. And in its place, an experience that emphasizes gaming and not just horse racing? Quizzical brows replace, indeed.

Overall, the fertile ground is sown, though. Like it or not, the world is changing, to quote J.R.R. Tolkien. I don’t know how it will turn out, but perhaps horse racing will benefit in some way.

Maybe, as long as handles are up and good governance at places like Oaklawn Park are balanced and preserved, we will have to trust that when a vanguard decides to defy the odds that they’ll also protect the integrity of the sport and game.

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