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Beating the odds.

While The Rest Of The Industry Struggles, Oaklawn Park At Hot Springs Continues To Post Winning Numbers

It trained sporadically on the more than 67,000 fans who squeezed into Oaklawn Park at Hot Springs for the season-ending Arkansas Derby.

A heavy thunderstorm hit not long after Pine Bluff had held off Lil E. Tee to win the thoroughbred track's premier race. But for the hour before and the hour after the derby post time, the day was postcard perfect.

The sun shone through for national cable television cameras.

The infield crowd stayed dry.

The Arkansas Derby was a fitting snapshot of Oaklawn's 1992 live season, which ended April 18 after 63 racing days.

Whenever track officials needed clear blue skies for a big Saturday crowd, the weatherman would oblige.

Whenever bettors rooted for a sizable Classix carryover pool to roll into the weekend, a long shot would keep the big "pick-six" wager alive another day.

Good weather, good timing and the effects of legislation approved in 1989 had Oaklawn's management team in a sunny mood on derby day.

The track's daily average attendance was 18,333, a 6 percent increase over 1991.

The average daily parimutuel handle at the track was $2,041,958, up 4 percent from 1991.

When wagers made possible via simulcasts at other tracks are added in, the average daily handle increases to $2,433,569.

To put those numbers in perspective, consider that just three years ago, Oaklawn's averages had dipped to 15,792 for daily attendance and $1,868,928 for daily handle.

That was before the impact of Act 12, legislation that lowered the state's take on wagers from 5.5 to 2.5 percent. Savings from the act go into a special fund for facility improvements and purse increases.

A Promotional Coup

Oaklawn's 1992 figures represent increases of 16 percent for average daily attendance and 30 percent for average daily handle since 1989.

"What we're seeing is Oaklawn clawing its way back," says Eric Jackson, the track's general manager and a newly appointed member of Oaklawn's board. "You can't reach out and touch any one thing. But you can touch a lot of different things -- staff changes, promotions, aggressive advertising, tax breaks. It's a total package. We're seeing some results."

Take this example of a good idea, a little luck and Act 12 combining on April 5.

The racing day was Sunday, one of the indirect results of Act 12. A timely Classix carryover pool totaled more than $500,000. Track management already had planned a $10,000 "Mucho Money Mutuel" promotion.

The result?

A record Sunday crowd of 37,262 bet $3,350,556 on a card that featured two stakes races for Arkansas-bred horses.

Six days later, an Oaklawn Handicap field that included the best older horse in training attracted about 2,000 fewer fans.

"That day |April 5~ was way beyond our expectations," says Chick Lang Jr., the track's administrative director. "The promotion had been successful at Louisiana Downs and in New York. But with the carryover and the promotion, it was a notch above successful.

"...A lot of things came together this year -- operationally, fanwise, promotionally, weatherwise and luck."

In 1991, luck had turned its back on Oaklawn.

The track began its meeting under the dark cloud of the Persian Gulf War. The economy was sluggish, and an early Sunday of the meeting saw Oaklawn competing with the biggest draw in televised sports, the Super Bowl.

A month into the season, when Oaklawn held a popular promotion during which a Cadillac is given away on Presidents' Day, rain soaked the track.

Later, the $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap attracted three of the most popular older horses in racing -- Jolie's Halo, Farma Way and Unbridled. Billed as the "Showdown at Oaklawn" and generally acknowledged as the biggest race in track history, the handicap was run under terrible conditions. A tornado watch and a steady downpour kept thousands of fans at home.

In 1992, sunny skies and comfortable temperatures were the order of the day for the Cadillac giveaway and the Oaklawn Handicap.

"When we did have bad weather, it was either on a slow weekday or on a dark |closed~ day," Jackson says.

Spreading The Wealth

Oaklawn distributed a record $11.95 million in purses despite running two fewer days than in 1991. That's about $190,000 per day, which is another measuring stick for success.

Only such elite tracks as Saratoga in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., have daily purse averages near or above the $200,000 mark.

"We perhaps were a little conservative early in our purse distribution," Jackson says. "But we had reason to be conservative. Everywhere else, business was slow. Christmas had been slow. The economy was sluggish.

"... But there are not many things we would go back and change. It was sort of like a football game that comes off exactly the way the game plan was set."

Lang agrees.

"It's like when a quarterback calls a play, sees a different defense than he expected and checks off," he says, also using the football analogy. "We called the right audibles this year."

When things click for Oaklawn, they usually click for Hot Springs.

The city's major industry is tourism.

And citywide tourism figures have gone up right along with the track's attendance figures.

According to the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, hotel and restaurant tax collections through March were up 7.8 percent from 1991. The increases are expected to continue through April.

"We've had unbelievably good weather and a much-improved promotional package," says Don Raulie, the commission's executive director. "We started our spring television ads in January, which we had not done previously ... That had an impact."

Raulie says there is no direct way to gauge Oaklawn's impact on the city's tourism industry.

Yet he's quick to add, "Anyone in the tourism industry will tell you the same thing. It was a good race meet, and business was good during that period."

An Industry In Trouble

The track's growth since the passage of Act 12 bucks national trends.

Industry experts are blunt. Times are tough. Most tracks are suffering economically.

Increased competition from alternative forms of gambling, a lack of horses and a proliferation of off-track betting outlets are the primary culprits.

"Racing had a monopoly on the wagering dollar for so long, it was complacent," a New York Racing Association official says. "Our idea of marketing was to open up the front gate and let the people come in."

Most tracks are drawing fewer people who are betting less money, although simulcasting and intertrack wagering have kept handle figures steady. The spring meeting at Remington Park in Oklahoma City, Oaklawn's nearest direct competitor, saw declines of 11.4 percent for average daily attendance and 7.3 percent for average daily handle from 1990 to 1991. Remington officials say attendance and handle figures are running about even with last year's figures for the current meeting, which ends May 3.

Louisiana Downs at Bossier City also suffered a slight decrease in handle last year, even with the influx of money from off-track wagers.

That wasn't the case at Oaklawn.

"It's a rarity in racing ... to experience the kind of success Oaklawn had," says Tony Chamblin, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International Inc. at Lexington, Ky. "In fact, Oaklawn is almost unique."

An analysis compiled by the Daily Racing Form on 97 North American tracks placed Oaklawn fifth in average daily attendance and handle figures. Only Del Mar near San Diego, Saratoga, Santa Anita and Hollywood Park at Inglewood, Calif., topped Oaklawn.

Del Mar's 1991 daily averages of 35,896 in attendance and $7,488,797 in on- and off-track handle set industry standards.

The four facilities that rank ahead of Oaklawn draw from a much larger fan base.

Oaklawn targets markets beyond the state's borders. Dallas is the biggest city in which Oaklawn advertises.

"A number of people in the industry look at Oaklawn as a special situation ... |a track that~ doesn't have the competition facing it that other tracks have," Chamblin says. "And there's the fact that it races a relatively short season in a pleasant, resort atmosphere. It's kind of a happening.

"Most racetracks operate on a much longer basis and are grind-it-out operations. Oaklawn starts with a fresh crowd and ends with one that is still fairly fresh."

Some of that crowd will return May 1 when Oaklawn begins its third season of summer simulcasting. The track will simulcast races from Louisiana Downs and from Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., from May 1 until June 28. It then will simulcast races from Louisiana Downs and from Arlington International Racecourse near Chicago from July 3 until Sept. 27.

The Oct. 31 Breeders' Cup races from Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla., also will be simulcast.

Jackson hopes the simulcasts will generate an additional $2 million in purses for the 1993 racing season.

"The bottom line is purse money," Jackson says. "Whoever has the biggest purses gets the best horses and draws the crowds."

The crowds bet money. The tracks flourish.

It sounds simple. Only a handful of racing facilities have perfected the formula, however.

Count Oaklawn among them.

"There are some bright spots in racing," Jackson says. "We believe we are one of them."
COPYRIGHT 1992 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Selling Arkansas, part 3; Oaklawn Park's race track
Author:Webb, Kane
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:Industry Overview
Date:Apr 27, 1992
Previous Article:Untapped potential: regional associations try to claim their share of Arkansas' $2.5 billion tourism industry.
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