Oaklawn 'Overrun With Horses' as Opening Day Nears

Eric Jackson is buoyed with hopeful expectations for the 2002 live racing season at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs.

His upbeat assessment is linked with the influx of thoroughbreds coming to town in preparation for this year's 54-day meet, which begins Jan. 25 and concludes with the Arkansas Derby on April 13.

"The big news we have right now is that we are overrun in horses," said Jackson, general manager of the Oaklawn Jockey Club Inc. "We've been told this is the busiest since 1988. We have more horses than we know what to do with."

Farms and training centers in the area are reporting strong demand for stall space. The heightened interest this year is linked with increasing the average daily purse to $230,000.

"If we get off to a good start, we'd like to try to raise that," Jackson said. "It will be the Presidents holiday weekend (Feb. 16-18) before we get a handle on what kind of season we're going to have."

But he believes the momentum is in place to have fuller fields of horses throughout the live racing season and better racing. If things play out, this scenario will lead to larger crowds and more wagering that will push the average daily purse even higher before the season's end.

The possibilities are like a pleasant dream for Jackson, who would like to write off the 2001 live racing season as a nightmare.

Total wagering and attendance during last year's 52-day meet sunk to its lowest point of the past 12 years.

Attendance at the Hot Springs track dropped nearly 9.5 percent (61,179) as Oaklawn drew 585,051 patrons compared to 646,230 in 2000.

Total wagering during the live racing season last year, which includes simulcast and instant racing wagers, was down more than $4.8 million. That 6.4 percent drop went from $75 million in 2000 to $70.2 million.

The continuing decline in numbers caused by competition from casinos et al was exacerbated by unfavorable weather.

"2001 started off so badly for us on the heels of the ice storm," said Jackson, "But we had a terrific fall and ended with a terrific simulcast season."

Total wagering during the simulcast season established a new track record of $60.6 million last year. A big component in the near 17.5 percent leap is the growth of instant race wagering.

"Terry Wallace (the track announcer and media relations director) deserves a lot of credit for that by helping make the simulcast season fun and entertaining," Jackson said. "There are games, contests and handicapping. This is for horse players, not recreational players."

Wagering on instant racing during the simulcast season climbed from $1.7 million in 2000 to nearly $6.4 million last year.

The success of the simulcast season is helping bankroll the higher purses heading into the live racing season. An added component are political considerations in the form of tax breaks earmarked for purses and track improvements.

"The excise tax on wagering at Oaklawn is now on parity with Texas," Jackson said. "We now have a level playing field."

Last year's weather woes included a stormy deluge that all but swamped the Arkansas Derby.

Jackson describes it as the worst weather ever for the Arkansas Derby that provided a poignant ending to the 2001 live racing season.

"It was one of those seasons when we were glad it was over," he said. "We lost 28 days of training last year. This year, we haven't lost a day."

The weather-beaten 2001 live racing season marked a continued decline in wagering that dates back to at least 1990.

Attendance at the live racing season has dropped each year after reaching a high point of nearly 1.2 million in 1992. With 10 fewer racing days, the 2001 meet drew only about half that total.

The figures for wagering reflect a similar drop of 47.7 percent from $134 million in 1990 to $70 million last year.

"We took a major hit from casinos in the surrounding states, but except for weather, we've held our own for the last few years. Tunica and Shreveport are now both mature markets (for casino gambling)," Jackson said. "To some extent we've leveled out. We're not gushing, but we still are bleeding."

Helping staunch the flow, or at least replace a big portion of the lost revenue, is the growth of wagering during the simulcast season.

Total wagers have increased from nearly $11 million in 1990 to more than $60 million last year. Wagering during the 2001 simulcast season accounted for 46 percent of all wagering for the year at Oaklawn.

The numbers underscore the success of Oaklawn becoming one of the leading simulcast centers in the nation.

The race track is remembered as a simulcast pioneer for co-mingling interstate pari-mutuel wagering with Arlington Park in Arlington Heights, Ill., in 1990.