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Back on track.

Back On Track

Year-Round Racing Returns Oaklawn Park To The Winner's Circle

Once it was called the Fifth Season.

Oaklawn Park ran from February through April, closed its doors, counted its money and waited for fans to flock back when the season began again.

Now, Arkansas' only thoroughbred track locks the gates just three months each year. This Fifth Season transcends winter, spring, summer and fall.

"We're a year-round operation, there's no getting around it," Chick Lang Jr., the track's administrative director, says. "We're always in a state of transition. The live season and the simulcast season almost run into each other. We're planning for one while the other is going on."

Oaklawn is in the midst of its second summer simulcast season, transforming itself into a racing theater by beaming in programs from Louisiana Downs at Bossier City, La., to be wagered on by local bettors.

Through 27 simulcast days, Oaklawn's total pari-mutuel handle already had surpassed last year's 36-day simulcast total of $10,909,262.

The 65-day live racing meet, which ended April 20, boasted a per-day handle of $1,966,005, down 4.8 percent from last year.

Attendance was 17,308 daily, a decrease of 1.5 percent from 1990.

With gross revenues of about $160 million in 1990, Oaklawn Jockey Club, owned by Charles J. Cella of Hot Springs, ranks 16th on the Arkansas Business Top 50. It was 17th a year ago.

"In retrospect, we had a far better |91 than we had a right to have," Oaklawn General Manager Eric Jackson says. "Because of the war and the recession, it has been a difficult year for all entertainment industries."

Simulcasting, Jackson says, has given Oaklawn insurance against the occasional off year.

The insurance policy is a double-edged sword, however.

It has been theorized by some, including Cella, that simulcasting will dilute racing and eventually result in the demise of all but three or four tracks nationwide.

It's a sign of the times that Cella has allowed this "21-inch horse" at Oaklawn. Increased competition from neighboring states, a sluggish economy and a shrinking slice of the entertainment pie have forced a multitude of changes.

Foremost among them is the simulcast season. Track officials also have made more than $5 million worth of improvements to the facility and increased purses seven times since 1988, when Oaklawn hit rock bottom and Cella considered closing the doors for all seasons.

A piece of legislation known as Act 12 gave Oaklawn a fighting chance, Jackson says. Act 12 lowered the state's take on pari-mutuel wagers from 5 percent to 2.5 percent, with savings from the act to go for purse increases and facility improvements.

Oaklawn has battled back, increasing daily handle and attendance figures by more than 10 percent in 1990 and fending off Remington Park, its state-of-the-art, $90-million competitor at Oklahoma City.

"It has been a remarkable turnaround for an Arkansas industry," Jackson says. "We're a substantially different operation than we were five years ago. Still, our bread and butter is our live season. That will never change."

PHOTO : IN FRONT: Oaklawn Park at Hot Springs, owned by Charles J. Cella of St. Louis, is again one of the nation's top thoroughbred tracks, thanks in large part to its summer simulcast season.

Kane Webb Arkansas Business Staff
COPYRIGHT 1991 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Top 50 Profiles; successful Oaklawn Jockey Club's horse racing business
Author:Webb, Kane
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:company profile
Date:Jul 15, 1991
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