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OPENING DAY AT OAKLAWN
1 p.m. Oaklawn Park. $2.
With the new year upon us, it's time for my favorite Arkansas tradition, opening weekend at Oaklawn in Hot Springs, which has been one of the premier sites for live horse racing for more than a century. Fancy sun hats! Corned-beef sandwiches! Racing forms!
Friday is opening day and Saturday features those famous sandwiches on sale for $0.50, which means they'll go through about four tons of corned beef (they're actually kind of forgettable, but a little ambiance goes a long way — that pickled/salty pile of meat has the taste of history). The mix of debutantes and debauchery leads to the best people-watching of the year as drunken gamblers curse their luck and highfalutin families show up to their box seats dressed like it's Easter in paradise.
Oh yeah, and the races — horse racing is one of those athletic spectacles that you just have to see in person. Part of it is the sensory overload as you get a chance to see up close just how big and fast the animals are, plus the rapid-fire live announcing over the speakers, dirt flying from hooves, the smell of cheap beer and manure. Most of all, it's the suspense of each race, as experts and amateurs alike track their favorites around the track and murmurs from the crowd grow to a roar when the horses come down the final stretch. Then the lucky few scream in triumph.
The first race I ever saw at Oaklawn, I won $300 on a $2 bet. My advice is pick a funny name with medium odds.
Note for the true racing aficionados: Legendary jockey and three-time Kentucky Derby winner Calvin Borel is likely to notch his 5,000th career victory this season, just the 26th jockey ever to reach that mark; Oaklawn will give out free commemorative trading cards when he does.
UPDATE: Looks like Borel's 5,000th will be delayed for a couple of weeks or so. Oaklawn announced yesterday that he had suffered a fractured wrist that will require a cast. He's supposed to be riding again in 18 days, according to a Facebook post from his wife, Lisa Borel.