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OPINION | KAREN MARTIN: Keeping up with the races

by Karen Martin | April 18, 2021 at 9:03 a.m.
Karen Martin

A couple of Fridays ago, the coming weekend loomed with no plans of a way to take advantage of anticipated beautiful weather. Yet another visit to a local dog park--standard operating procedure for our three-dog/two-person family--didn't seem to satisfy an urge to expand our horizons.

"Let's go to Hot Springs tomorrow," I proposed. The dogs are always up for anything involving leashes and a car ride, and Philip was agreeable, especially since I threw in coffee, bagels, and Puppuccinos (little cups of sweetened whipped cream) at Starbucks as a starting point.

I didn't know it would be Arkansas Derby Day at Oaklawn Racing and Gaming. This is a date I've never overlooked before, the highlight of the state's thoroughbred racing season. Although I seldom attend--too crowded, too crazy--I always was aware of when it was happening, and the names and backgrounds of the favored horses.

Same with the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont. There are lots of problems with thoroughbred horse racing, and with gambling on such races, but for some of us it remains thrilling to watch elite equine athletes compete.

Thanks, pandemic. When milestones start to drop off my radar because of your interference, it's time for you to go.

Turns out the Derby didn't interfere with a lovely day, mainly because Oaklawn wasn't our direct destination. After a stop at a North Little Rock Starbucks (resulting in dogs sticky with whipped cream on their fuzzy faces) and a pleasant hour-long drive, we joined in sizable numbers of T-shirted strollers on Hot Springs' Central Avenue.

Early afternoon was prime time to inspect shop windows, admire the exterior of the Waters Hotel (formerly the regal Thompson Building, built in 1913 and renovated in 2014 at a cost of $7 million), chat with a guy enjoying a caffeinated beverage at a table outside Kollective Coffee and Tea, admire a lineup of Harley-Davidsons outside Fat Jack's Oyster Sports Bar and Grill, be surprised at the number of CBD oil retailers along downtown's main thoroughfare, visit the surprisingly quiet lobby of dog-friendly Arlington Hotel, and catch the attention of passers-by who fuss over our little terriers, known for their shamelessness in the pursuit of attention.

The highlight of a windy sunny afternoon was hiking along the gravel Peak Trail (with an average grade of 12.8 percent) across from the Arlington that leads to Hot Springs Mountain Tower. Admission to the 216-foot-tall tower is $10, but unless you just can't stay away, spectacular views of Hot Springs, the Ouachita Mountains and the surrounding Diamond Lakes area are available for free from plenty of vantage points surrounding the structure.

There were lots of visitors roaming the trails and milling around the base of the tower. Not all of them walked up there; a paved loop leads to a good-sized parking lot.

Although we were impressed by the unexpectedly large crowd there, we still hadn't figured out it was Derby Day. Nobody else mentioned it either.

Going down the Short Cut Trail (average grade of 21.1 percent) was steeper but easier than heading up, and the overall effort paid off with Drumstick ice cream cones (probably the first time I ever had one that hadn't been stashed in the back of an unreliably cold freezer for months; a fresh Drumstick is amazingly good) shared with the four-leggers on a bench in front of the Arlington.

Last on the loosely planned schedule: A drive past Oaklawn to catch a glimpse of the newly opened hotel at 2705 Central Avenue. The closer we got, the higher our level of curiosity: Why are so many people here? Haven't they heard about the pandemic? Social distancing? Mask-wearing? Sure, plenty of them have probably received a covid-19 vaccination, but this scene was reminiscent of typical racing-season Saturdays when the interstate from Little Rock to Hot Springs was backed up with racing fans heading to Oaklawn on warm spring days like this one.

Well, no wonder. Derby Day attracted 17,000 to watch local trainer Steve Asmussen's 3-year-old Super Stock beat Bob Baffert's heavily favored California-bred Concert Tour, who came in third (second was locally owned Caddo River). That's far from past years' attendance of up to 60,000, but is impressive in light of covid-19 restrictions.

If your internal calendar of anticipated events is as off as mine, here's another surprise: Although Oaklawn racing usually culminates with the Derby, that's not happening this year. Racing will continue through May 1. Grandstand seats and general admission spots on the apron are available. The glamorous new hotel is accepting reservations.

And the hiking trails remain an option.

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.

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