Oaklawn opens up to possibilities

The thermal springs are immune to climate changes and fluctuations in rainfall. The water that rises to the surface on the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain fell as rain or snow thousands of years ago, collected in an ancient aquifer and then percolated slowly upwards until it could flow at 145 degrees or so into one of the city's baths. The soothing and palliative effects, in other words, come from the past; perhaps, too, the effects flow from an awareness that these springs are immune to the present.

What the city's thermal springs are for the convalescent and the weary, its racetrack is for racing. Oaklawn Park begins its 56-day season Friday. And like the nearby springs, Oaklawn Park soothes with a potion from the past that combines reassuringly with an awareness that at least this racetrack is blessedly immune to modern vagaries.

At Oaklawn Park, there will never be a Cougar Day, a Mike vs. Chantal match race, or an advertising campaign featuring exotic dancers; there will never be night racing, or camel racing or ostrich racing. At Oaklawn Park, horses and racing matter.

And throughout Hot Springs, Ark., from January until mid-April, attention and interest and fascination all focus unrelentingly on horse racing. The population of Hot Springs, according to the 2010 census, is 32,923, but, of course, the city swells up during the racing season, with as many 60,000 or even 70,000 attending the races on the biggest of days. Visitors fill hotels, motels, resorts and restaurants, and they all search for the same thing, a winner. People talk about racing over breakfast -- pass the biscuits and the entries, if you please -- discuss Daily Double possibilities as they pump gas into their cars and generally spend their days celebrating any recent success and looking for the next one. And if you eavesdrop on the spirit of the place, you just might get a tip on a winner of an upcoming Triple Crown race.

"I think what makes Oaklawn special is that the horse is revered here," said D. Wayne Lukas, the Hall of Fame trainer who topped the Oaklawn standings a year ago with 27 victories and who again has a powerful stable in Hot Springs. "This is a very sports-minded area, from the colleges right down through the high schools. But for professional sports this time of year, this is the only game around, and the people here love it. They're very enthusiastic; the whole city is buzzing about the opening, and the buzz won't stop."

Going to Oaklawn Park is special. Going to Oaklawn is a social thing.

-- Trainer Donnie Von Hemel

No, it won't stop until the last race is run, and then it will only downshift to a steady humming that accompanies the Oaklawn horses as they advance to success elsewhere, as they inevitably do. Havre De Grace, Caleb's Posse, Nehro, The Factor, Blind Luck, Smiling Tiger -- they all raced at Oaklawn last year. Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, Curlin, Super Saver, Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones -- they all raced at Oaklawn. And with purses approaching $350,000 a day this year, the coruscating quality could even be reminiscent.

"Going to Oaklawn Park is special," said trainer Donnie Von Hemel. An Oaklawn regular for years, he won last season's Smarty Jones Stakes in Hot Springs with Caleb's Posse, who's a finalist to be named the champion 3-year-old of 2011. Von Hemel said Belmont's Metropolitan Handicap in May will be the first major objective this year for Caleb's Posse, but the flashy stretch-runner could begin his campaign with Oaklawn's Count Fleet Handicap.

"Going to Oaklawn is a social thing," Von Hemel continued, explaining why the Hot Springs racetrack is special. Von Hemel compared "the feel" at Oaklawn, in terms of the excitement and atmosphere, to what a visitor might experience at Saratoga or Del Mar. But Oaklawn has something those tracks don't: an emphasis on the sport's glamour division, the 3-year-olds, who, this time of year, occupy the national spotlight as they prepare for the Triple Crown.

With a natural progression in distances, a comfortable spacing of races and a surface that seems to prepare horses for what they'll find in Kentucky, Oaklawn, Lukas pointed out, is one of the nation's best places to prepare a 3-year-old for a run at the famed series. Lukas said he will send out the colt that could be his foremost Derby hope, Optimizer, in Monday's $100,000 Smarty Jones Stakes, where the big chestnut will probably meet the stakes-winning filly On Fire Baby.

"This horse has really developed," Lukas said about Optimizer, who finished fourth in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes to conclude his juvenile campaign. "This is the crucial time, the next 60 to 90 days, when the horses who are going to be in the Derby have to develop and do well."

Lukas said other young horses in his barn could develop into prominence, including Chalybeate Springs and Gameday News, who are both entered Saturday. Lukas also owns Gameday News, in partnership with Bill Parcells, the former NFL coach.

Next month, on Feb. 20, Oaklawn will present the $250,000 Southwest Stakes, and then on March 17 the $500,000 Rebel Stakes and then on April 14, closing day, the $1 million Arkansas Derby. Such lucrative stakes, which, by the way, all have that Roman numeral adornment, also make Oaklawn special, especially since the field for the Kentucky Derby will be limited to 20 based on earnings in graded stakes.

Yes, Oaklawn Park is a special place. And as racing and racetracks change, Oaklawn becomes more special each year.