A global pandemic delayed but couldn’t stop the $100 million expansion of Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs.
The expansion, announced two years ago and originally set for completion in December, includes a 200-room high-rise hotel; 28,000 SF of gaming space with a new high-roller area; and an upscale restaurant — The Bugler — and an adjacent bar — The First Turn — that overlook the race track.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Oaklawn Jockey Club President Louis Cella are scheduled to officially mark the grand opening during a 11 a.m. event, which will broadcast live online on Facebook.
There’s still work to be done, according to General Manager Wayne Smith, who conducted a tour of the facility on Monday. The pandemic affected the supply chain so that materials didn't arrive when they should have, he said.
So about half the hotel is ready for occupancy, and the 14,000-SF events center wasn't ready as of Monday. But Smith said it would be by today's event. The spa, pool and fitness club won’t be available until the end of the month. In all, the project calls for 400 new jobs, but only half have been filled so far.
Despite a 2018 constitutional amendment that allowed casino gambling in Arkansas and prompted a wave of new casino construction and upgrades in Pine Bluff and West Memphis, Smith said that there's nothing in the state like Oaklawn’s new facility. He said it offers patrons a new level of luxury.
To that end, the hotel offers deluxe king and queen rooms, studio suites, one-bedroom suites, two presidential suites and one hospitality suite. For now, rates will be $20-$25 more per night than the most expensive rooms in Hot Springs. Smith said Oaklawn is holding off on higher rates because not all amenities are open yet.
Fresh carpet and chairs grace both the new and old gaming footprint. The high-roller room has some seating away from the games and a small outdoor balcony so patrons can “take a break,” he said.
Oaklawn said the new attractions will build on Hot Springs’ regional reputation.
“We want to make sure that we are incorporating, or keeping, Hot Springs as our competitive advantage,” he said. “So this now allows for Oaklawn to draw regionally, not only from the racing perspective but on the casino side and the resort side. …
“From a regional perspective, we believe that Hot Springs is our competitive advantage against all other casinos. So many people come to Hot Springs for tourism, so that’s an opportunity for us.”
Other amenities include an array of bars; a food court with a hamburger joint, deli, coffee shop and “internet cafe”; and more parking. The coffee shop is supplied by Arkansas companies Westrock Coffee and Mountain Valley Spring Water. Smith said The Bugler will have steaks diners can cut with a fork.
While casino gambling has proven far more lucrative than horse racing, Oaklawn will continue to put thoroughbreds at the center of everything.
“A lot of what you’re going to find at Oaklawn throughout this whole expansion is there’s always a hint of racing somewhere in the area,” Smith said. “Our DNA is racing.”
A bugler statue, commissioned by Oaklawn, stands guard at The Bugler restaurant. Hotel rooms — some of which have views of the track — and the hotel lobby feature horse racing art.
The events center can seat up to 1,500 people and be split into thirds. It features walk-up concession windows so that visitors don’t have to leave the room to order drinks or snacks. It also has pull out recliner-like bleacher seats in the back.
Smith claims there’s not a bad seat in the house.
He also said Oaklawn consulted the Hot Springs Convention Center before building the events center, to ensure the town could support two such venues. Smith said the two will partner to host larger events than either could handle alone.
The center is already booked for an Oaklawn team members’ banquet and the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce’s annual banquet, both scheduled for early May. Smith said it’s set up for concerts, too.