In its third century of existence, Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort -- what the track on Central Avenue in Hot Springs is now called -- has enough stories to sustain an historian.
The track today offers two Grade 3 races for older horses that should motivate any aspiring Carl Sandburg. One involves a second local track, which burned, and a horse that raced here five seasons and never burned out.
The $500,000 Essex Handicap, for older males, recognizes the track near Lake Catherine that went up in flames after one day of operation. This occurred during an anything-goes period in American racing, which in Hot Springs was affected by what the track media guide calls the "political climate."
In more stable times, even with America crawling out of the Great Depression, Oaklawn was here to stay in 1934. Brothers Louis and Charles Cella of St. Louis and two other men had founded the Oaklawn Jockey Club in 1904. Oaklawn has raced every year since Franklin D. Roosevelt's first of four terms as U.S. president, halted only by a governmental edict to suspend racing nationally in 1945 because of World War II and the COVID pandemic of 2020, in which crowds were limited but the product didn't suffer.
Buoyed by off-track betting, Oaklawn handled a record $41.4 million on the rescheduled Arkansas Derby card in 1920, running the race in two divisions for just the second time in its 84-year history. Another Louis Cella, whose father, Charles, served as track president nearly 50 years after his own father's death in 1968, oversaw a track expansion that resulted in expanded casino gaming, a hotel and an event center, plus sports betting. But no turf course, although with a longer season, 2-year-old racing returned to Oaklawn in 2021.
Few Hot Springs-based horses raced better and were more loved than Whitmore, whom owner-trainer Ron Moquett converted from a Kentucky Derby contestant to a champion sprinter, no easy feat. The Old Boy, as some came to call him, scored his second Grade 1 victory in the 2020 Breeders' Cup Sprint at Keeneland, the first coming in 2018 at Saratoga. When he could no longer run like a champion, Moquett gracefully retired him during the gelding's 8-year-old season, winning seven stakes and more than $1 million at Oaklawn alone in what may prove a Hall of Fame-worthy career.
Oaklawn showed its appreciation by naming a barn and renaming the Hot Springs Stakes, which the son of Pleasantly Perfect won a record four times, after Whitmore. The second running of the $200,000 Whitmore is today, underlining a 10-race program that the track also honors several members of the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York.
First post is 12:35 p.m., and the honorees include locally based trainers Steve Asmussen, who last month at Oaklawn extended his North American record with his 10,000th career victory, and Wayne Lukas, who at age 87 has two graded victories during the current season. Other Hall of Famers with horses at the meet include Jerry Hollendorfer, Bill Mott and Nick Zito. Hall of Famer Calvin Borel, with three Kentucky Derby winners, still rides at Oaklawn.
If all goes well, Whitmore will be paraded on track before the race in his honor. Living near his trainer on the backside of Oaklawn and cared for by Moquett and his wife, Laura, Whitmore is one happy camper, his people report.
Bob's Edge, trained by Larry Jones and whose late running emulated that of Whitmore, won the first stake in the gelding's honor last year. The 10-horse field today includes uncoupled entries trained by Asmussen (Cogburn, Morello) and Chris Hartman (Tejano Twist, Edge to Edge). Race 8 on the program, the Whitmore goes off at 4:22 p.m.