HOT SPRINGS -- After a $100 million expansion and a momentous shift in its live racing calendar, Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort is poised to make December a month like no other for Hot Springs and the state of Arkansas.
The 117-year-old thoroughbred racetrack is gearing up to host its live racing season in December for the first time in its history, when the 66-day season kicks off Dec. 3.
"It's just incredibly exciting for Hot Springs to have racing in December," said Steve Arrison, chief executive officer of the Visit Hot Springs tourism agency. "You know, December's usually a quieter month. You look forward to the racing season in January when it starts and it gives us an extra season that no other destination in Arkansas has. So to start it in December is just wonderful news. It's going to have just an incredible economic impact on our community. It's just good for everybody."
More people are expected to visit the Spa City this Christmas season as a result of the early racing season, as Arrison noted, many will come who normally do not.
"People will be coming when they usually don't come in December," he said. "You know, we're having a very strong fall but there's a reason Oaklawn is the No. 1 tourism attraction in the state of Arkansas. And letting that open a month earlier than usual is just great news for the businesses and the economy of Hot Springs.
"Just combine that with everything else that goes on December -- it's just like an early Christmas present for Hot Springs. We have the best horses in the world race here and it's just great, great news for our community. We're having a great fall and this is even going to make it better."
Board member and Senior Vice President of Oaklawn Jockey Club Eric Jackson recently told the Hot Springs National Park Rotary Club the announcement of the new racing season -- both throughout the state and nationally -- has been very well received and will change training patterns across America.
"Twenty years ago, a little over that now, we came to the conclusion that if we didn't change our business model, we weren't going to be around that long," he said. "We barely made it through the '90s and it didn't look good. So we started a journey back about 20 years ago that has brought us to where we are today.
"It is like a dog learning new tricks. We have had to learn them. And we're pretty proud of where we are. We're just finishing up a $100 million expansion project. It has taken us longer than we thought because we did it in the middle of covid, but we've got a lot of different parts to Oaklawn now that we never had," Jackson said.
Throughout his long career serving Oaklawn, Jackson said he never could have imagined it becoming what it has today. With the changes in the live racing season, he said he believes a major byproduct will be a lot more trainers using Hot Springs as a central training hub, where they'll have homes and farms in Hot Springs and the Garland County area.
"I mean, when you're looking over the abyss -- it may be going out of business -- you don't let yourself dream about 'how great it might be,'" Jackson said when asked whether he foresaw the success coming those many years ago.
"But when we set out on that journey 20-something years ago, we thought we had a chance to do something special, and I think we have. I think, and I know I'm biased, but I think we have the best racing gaming model in America, and some people do agree with me."
Jackson said a couple of years ago he was invited to speak to a national association of racing executives.
"It was in July -- we're not even racing," he said. "And I asked them, 'Why do you want somebody from Arkansas coming to your big convention in July and talking about Arkansas racing?' And he said, 'We think you're the brightest spot in American racing, and what you're doing is going to be a model for the entire industry.'
"So, I'm biased, but some other people feel that way too," Jackson said. "Yes -- very proud of how far we've come, and any time -- many of you have been in business -- any time you can pick yourself up off the mat and get back in the game, and you're successful, you appreciate it a whole lot more than when you were there the first time."
There is basically nothing like Oaklawn in America, he said, which was their goal when starting out, noting that moving the live racing season for the first time ever was one of their most significant changes.
"And when you talk about Oaklawn, the economy, tourism, retirement, that revenue stream, the quality of life -- all the things that go into making this rich mosaic that we have in Hot Springs -- I think we just have to remind ourselves, 'Aren't we lucky that we get to live here?'" he said.
The entire expansion at Oaklawn has been an unqualified success and there's something for everyone, Jackson said, noting the new top-of-the-line restaurant, the Oak Room, is expected to be open by Christmas. It will feature a smoking section that will be completely partitioned off with its own ventilation system and separate from the gaming area.
The table games, he noted, have been very successful and he does not know of anything they would have done differently besides taking it on during COVID.
Looking back over his career, Jackson said the thing he is most proud of is the Oaklawn Foundation, which he believes will benefit the community for years to come. Since being established about 15 years ago, the foundation has had close to $15 million put in, with $1.5 million during the last year pre-COVID alone.
"It's fairly unique in Arkansas," he said.
"We fund it. We don't run it. It is governed by groups of community leaders. ... It is completely independent. We fund it; all we ask is that the money be kept in Hot Springs. Our preference is for at least half of it to go to education or programs that benefit our children, and the other half for programs that benefit senior citizens such as the Oaklawn Center on Aging.
"When I say, 'If Oaklawn does better, the foundation does better,' the funding model is based on our business," he said.