For the first time in Oaklawn’s 118-year history, live race meets will begin in December, and today (Friday) is the start of this milestone season.
In the spirit of historical events happening at what has come to be the city’s largest tourism draw, Louis Cella, fourth generation owner of the now-resort, told Hot Springs National Park Rotary Club on Wednesday about a few other historical milestones Oaklawn has seen since his family founded it in 1904. In a speech rich in history and profound moments for Oaklawn, Cella told all — from the first grandstand built to the more than $100 million expansion completed, making it a resort, over the summer.
“Though we’ve always evolved over the years, the sport of horse racing has always been in our core,” Cella told the club. “… My great grandfather, Charles Cella and his brother Louis Cella hired celebrated Chicago architect Zachary Taylor Davis to kick off what we have at Oaklawn to design the very first glass enclosed heated grandstand.
“Davis went on to be quite famous, as he’s the same architect that designed Chicago’s Wrigley Field a decade later. It doesn’t take a historian to appreciate all that has changed since that first grand stand was built 118 years ago.”
But Cella pointed out the journey getting to the resort Oaklawn is today was not one absent obstacles.
“We have expanded, we’ve renovated, we’ve torn down, we’ve rebuilt many, many things over the years,” he said. “But beginning in the 90s, once again in our long history, we came at a crossroads. One path led to success, one path led to closure, and we realized that if we did not evolve, our future was not looking bright. But we did change and we did survive."
“We created the very first merged pool simulcast between Arlington Park in Chicago, and Oaklawn here in Hot Springs," he said. "It had never been done before across state lines. Every single state in the nation followed our lead.”
In-line with “very firsts,” Cella said in 2000 Oaklawn created the very first pari mutuel wagering electronic system that let players wager on races.
“Once again, Oaklawn was the talk of racing nation, and every single state tried to follow our lead and pass enabling legislation,” he said. “Four years later we celebrated our 100th anniversary. … We offered a bonus — an unheard of bonus — if a horse could sweep a rebel stakes the Arkansas Derby in the famed Kentucky Derby we’d offer a $5 million bonus.
“Well, it just so happened that a certain horse named Smarty Jones came around and swept all three and grabbed that first-ever $5 million bonus. Funny how things happen that way in Arkansas.”
Since introducing instant racing in 2000, Cella said Oaklawn has had multiple expansion projects.
“When Oaklawn added games of skill in 2007, we embarked on a 60,000 square-foot two-level gaming floor. A few years later we expanded on that and opened just in time for our 2015 live season.”
And the latest project for Oaklawn, which has come to be its largest, is the more than $100 million expansion that would make it a resort. The project was announced in 2018. Cella said it would be “creating a world class hotel, upscale restaurants, a spa that Arkansans have never seen before and so much more.”
“It of course has been challenging, a few years taking on a project like this during a pandemic,” he said. “But we did it the same way we’ve done things the past 118 years. We control what we can control, we work with what we cannot control and we have to be flexible.
“And absolutely none of this could be possible without our team members and our fans. Arkansas has the most loyal racing fans in the sport, and it shows every single race meet.”
Similarly, he said Oaklawn also has a workforce that is not only driven, but “legitimately cares about Oaklawn and Hot Springs.”
“During our racing season between the track, the spa, event center, hotel, casino, nine restaurants, 10 bars, countless concession stands; we add about a thousand people to our payroll,” Cella said. “When you add all of the staff the trainers have to hire to take care of the 1,500 horses in the 43 different barns, add another thousand people.
“We had Oaklawn operate on setting a bar that is very, very high, and our standards so high that we make sure everyone reaches that bar of excellence that will shine for our state. And they continually meet those expectations and strive to provide the best possible experience for whomever walks through the doors.”
He said their focus on excellence is driven by the desire to make sure guests enjoy a facility that is safe, clean, friendly and “most importantly a whole lot of fun.”
“We sought to create a regional resort, bringing guests not just from the state of Arkansas, but from the surrounding states,” Cella said. “We created a destination resort that Hot Springs can proudly support. We created something for everyone, going the extra mile at every corner, and so that those who do visit we know they will enjoy their stay, and they will look so forward to visiting again in Hot Springs. And that relationship is key.”
“So just imagine,” Cella said in closing, “… waking up in a hotel room, looking out your window seeing the horses train, maybe go down to the spa for a massage or take in the needle shower, or take in the whirlpool; maybe try your luck on the casino floor, and you can do all of that before breakfast.
“Compliment that morning with a weekend at the races seeing the very best thoroughbred racing in the nation, only in Hot Springs. And you can end your night dining in one of our upscale restaurants, or just retire to your room, put on a robe and order room service — dreaming that you can do it all again the next day. Something for everyone, and where else than at the Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort.”