Oaklawn Racing opens for the 2020 season amid huge expansion project

HOT SPRINGS, Ark — An estimated crowd of 20,000 navigated a maze of construction to take part in the 116-year tradition of welcoming horse racing back to Oaklawn in Hot Springs.

“We’re excited to have just a tremendous race meet ahead of us,” said Wayne Smith, G.M. of Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort.

Smith took Friday’s opening day to focus on the racing while a seven-story hotel looms over the Clubhouse turn, under construction as part of a multi-million expansion. Racing returning is kind of like holding a giant house party in the middle of a kitchen remodeling.

“The biggest thing is that we’re making sure that our fans can have the best experience they could possibly have from the time they park, all the way until they get their first beer,” Smith said.

Parking is a huge challenge this year. The construction has gobbled a huge swath of what was once parking lot. Now, lots stretch for four blocks away from the front door with shuttle buses scurrying across the plains of asphalt.

“Parking is going to be an evolution this season,” Smith said. “As I tell the team constantly and on a day-to-day basis, short-term pain, long-term gain.”

Parking close to the building costs $2.00. Free lots are available, but will require a shuttle ride or a hefty hike.

But, the construction is a sign of all the money Oaklawn has available with the expansion of what is now officially called a casino. All that money is paying off by attracting the biggest names in the sport.

Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. won twice on the card the day after winning his second Eclipse Award as the nation’s best rider.

Ortiz finished second in the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes aboard Three Technique, a horse owned by famed former football coach Bill Parnell. Gold Street won the race in a mild upset.

The stakes result provided bright spots on a cloudy day with promises of bigger things to come.

“We’re a year away from everything and everybody being wowed,” Smith said. “For now, everything is working well for us.”

RELATED: ‘We have a great future’ | Oaklawn Owner Louis Cella excited for 2020 season

RELATED: Oaklawn 2020 live meet starts Friday