Oaklawn President Louis Cella spoke at the Rotary Club of Hot Springs. Cella began his remarks addressing how things have changed quite a bit since his great-grandfather and great-granduncle built the Oaklawn Jockey Club in 1904; specifically, how the importance of changing with the times has always been at the core to Oaklawn’s success.
“In the 90s we had the realization that if we did not change, the future was not looking bright for Oaklawn. Change was necessary, so we did,” Cella said. “Change started with co-mingled wagering on interstate simulcast races which now represents over 90% of all North American handle. It all started right here in Hot Springs. In 2000 we created instant racing, a pair of mutual electronic systems, which allowed players to wager on previously run horse races”
Oaklawn, which celebrated its 100th anniversary four years after creating instant racing, started the product that is now referred to as historical horse racing. According to Cella, historical horse racing has saved racing in Wyoming, Oregon, Virginia and Kentucky – the largest thoroughbred state in the union. In celebration of its 100th year anniversary, Oaklawn offered a $5 million bonus to any horse that could not only win the rebel steaks, but also win the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby. According to Cella, Smarty Jones accomplished this task and tracks across the country began to follow Oaklawn’s lead.
“In 2015 we added Electronic Games of Skill and in late 2018 we announced a $100 million expansion at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort. Our timing was not great to take on such a project during a pandemic, but we did, and we proceeded to do what we have done in the past 118 years,” Cella said. “We control what we can control, we work with what we cannot and we are always flexible.”
Oaklawn, in the last year, introduced new projects such as The OAK room & bar, concerts in the new Pop’s Lounge, several summer concerts in the event center and a one-of-a-kind smoking lounge within the casino that features a special exhaust system. According to Cella, this was all in addition to the racing that was second to none, featuring a purse structure of over $45,000,000.
According to Cella, Oaklawn has been busy this summer and is currently planning its racing schedule.
“We will be racing on weekends only, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with the inclusion of Presidents’ Day Monday and all Thursdays in the month of March. We will have several special racing days, but I am most proud of hosting the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame Day,” Cella said.
Cella also mentioned several brick and mortar projects, including relocating the entire racing office to the grandstand – near the paddock, relocating the startle licensing offices to the old reserve seats office and renovating the press box, which is located on the roof.
In addition to these changes, Cella said that there have been several technological advancements at Oaklawn. Among these changes is a new mobile sports wagering application. This free app can be downloaded on any smartphone.
“Even if you do not wager on sports, it’s a great site to just enjoy listening to all the games. But if you enjoy sports betting, no longer must you be physically in our sports book to place a bet on the hogs, you can do it from the comfort of your home, or anywhere within the state,” Cella said.
Oaklawn has also recently built a new sports bar at the old mainline betting line, which is located in the main grandstand near the paddocks in the Caverness Room. According to Cella, Oaklawn has created this atmosphere as part of an ongoing goal to offer a complete resort experience for everyone.
“We have built what we believe is the best sports bar in the region – the adequately named Mainline Sports Bar. With the addition of a sports book and betting windows, there are three Top Golf simulators. These are not just for practicing your golf swing. We also offer soccer, tennis, baseball and football and a few other sports, in addition, we will now also offer axe throwing,” Cella said. “We’ve created a unique entertainment and dining experience featuring nearly 100 televisions that will provide fun for all. Although located in the grandstand, The Mainline Sports Bar will be open every day to the general public with no age restrictions.”
Oaklawn, in partnership with its horseman, have created another season for the record books. This season will offer nearly 50,000,000 in purses, with Oaklawn to give away almost $750,000 per day. According to Cella, this will once again be the highest purse structure in the United States during this time of the year.
“With such a purse structure in place, we will be offering the best horse racing in the nation as the best horses and racing connections always follow the money, especially with all allowance races starting at $100,000 and Maiden special weights at 90,000,” Cella said. “We can do this, by the way, because we have partnered with our horsemen. We are partners, not enemies like in every other race in jurisdiction, and we have developed the best racing gaming model in the country. Truly, the envy of the racing nation.”
According to Cella, Oaklawn will have 109 different trainers descending upon Hot Springs, including 12 new outfits coming from New York, Florida, Kentucky, Texas, Arizona and California this season.
“Our fans are the most educated racing fans in the country, and we take great pride in not letting them down. There is a reason our trainers and jockeys from around the country relocate to the Spa City where they become superstars,” Cella said.
The Jockey Club has also undergone renovations, as the walls to the Triple Crown Room have been leveled, allowing for a more comfortable lounge area. According to Cella, televisions have been placed throughout the room, including a private bar.
In relocating the 13 Triple Crown paintings to the club entry lobby, the art is accessible for all to enjoy, according to Cella. The Arkansas Room has also undergone expansion and now includes a private viewing area, exclusive to its guests.
“If you stay in the hotel or look out in the infield, you will see green grass or at least grass growing. This past summer we installed an irrigation system throughout the entire infield, not for a future golf course for those of you with long memories, but to insure our fans a more comfortable park like setting year round,” Cella said.“We are constantly trying to innovate. We have evolved from old school to new school, offering our patrons what they want, not what is easiest for us to implement. And finally, we are a team. Oaklawn and the community. As I have said many times, if Oaklawn succeeds, so does Hot Springs. If Hot Springs finds growth, so does Oaklawn. It is a proven formula for a modern racing casino. See you at the races.”
For more information about Oaklawn and its many events, visit its website.