Leg 1 Looking for Warmth

Once again I start out on President's Day weekend. This trip I head for the deep south hoping to find some warm weather and visit one of the gems of racing Oaklawn Park. I've got four days and hope to hit five tracks, three in Louisiana, one in Texas, the other in Arkansas, it's tight but doable.  

Turf ParadiseFair Grounds Gate

I start out bright and early, (maybe not so bright) with a 5:30 am flight to New Orleans. The flight arrived on time around 10:30, local time. Enough time to pick up the rental car and head out to the Fair Grounds. The Fair Grounds, depending where you get your information from, is either the second or third oldest track in the country. The grandstand, which replaced it's predecessor in the nineties, after a devastating fire, is an all weather glass enclosed facility, which includes a casino. Unfortunately the casino see's more action than the track.

Of note jockey's Chantal Sutherland and Joe Bravo moved their tack to the New Orleans oval for the meet. The weather was in the seventies but cloudy. Only had time for about half the card, had to get started on the four hour ride to Vinton and Delta Downs.

Said to be located in Vinton, Delta Downs is nowhere near the town, you just drive through the woods and all of a sudden there's this giant complex staring you in the face. Good news, bad news, the good news, there's a hotel on site. The bad news, it's the weekend and you pay double the weekday rate. By the time I got checked in and made it trackside, the third race was going off, but not to worry there are eleven races on the card. I liked Delta Downs, it's three quarter mile track and tighter turns reminded me of old Lincoln Downs although it doesn't handicap the same.

I have never seen a track with a shorter stretch (640 ft) where front runners just die in the stretch, knowing I couldn't handicap I stuck with Timothy Thornton, who somehow ended up here by way of Chicago. Usually over bet, he brought home a fifteen dollar winner in the seventh, so I decided to call it a night and rest up for the drive to Texas, in the morning.

The schedules was a little less hectic on Saturday, so after the two and a half hour drive to Houston, I thought it was time for a little culture. I timed my arrival in Houston for about noon, post time is not till 7pm, so I headed to a quite place outside town, called Malone Street. At 222, we find the world famous Beer Can House, well the names a little deceiving, cause it's more like the beer can sided house. Still it's an unusual place to kill a little time and see how it was done. From the beer can house, it's off to downtown to check out Minute Maid Park (sounds like I should be in Florida) home of the Houston Astros. No trip to Houston, would be complete without a stop at the eight wonder of the world The Astrodome. Once the marvel of American ingenuity, it looks small now, dwarfed by it's neighbor NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans. That's about all the time for culture, time to get back to business.          

Turf ParadiseBeer Can House

A quick stop to check in at the motel and it's off to Same Houston Race Park. Sam Houston was the first Class I track to open in Texas, back in 1994. Over the years without the benefit of a casino, the track has seen a steady decline in business. Tonight's handle was a million and a quarter, with ninety percent from off track betting, no lines here. I have to admit I haven't paid much attention to Texas racing the past few years and it showed. The card started out with a race for Arabian's followed by eight thoroughbred  events, four on dirt, four on the weeds. Turf racing is hard enough, but turf racing with cheap horses is impossible. Needless to say it was a tough night, only one favorite (3.20) won all night. At least it wasn't cold, and it won't get any easier tomorrow.

Gotta leave Houston a little before the sun comes up, no Interstate between here and Bossier City, going to take the scenic route for five plus hours to Louisiana Downs. The weather is still cloudy when I get to the hotel, got time to check in before the track. Arriving at the track, it looks like a good crowd, but this is a racino. As I suspected I'm pretty much the only here not holding a bridle, or some other horse gear. I know it's a quarter horse meet, but it's hard to believe this place used to host one of the richest races in the world. Mercifully there are only seven races, I used my quarter horse handicapping skills I acquired at Will Rodgers, a few years back. Play the horse with the fastest early call to show, in quarter horse racing you don't get all those 2.10 payouts like the thoroughbred tracks, so you can actually bet an entire card without losing your shirt, just don't bet too much. Stayed for all seven races, but had to launder myself in the casino for a while, all those dimes and quarters in my pockets were starting to get the attention of the locals. We'll everything worked out, it would have been nicer to see thoroughbreds, but it was live racing, back to the hotel to rest, a big day tomorrow.             

Turf ParadiseOaklawn Park

Got to sleep in a bit, I'm back on an Interstate and it's only three hours to Hot Springs and Oaklawn Park. About half way there I came to Texarkana, Arkansas and the memories came flooding back. Not that I had ever been to Texarkana.

It was fifty two years ago, I was in the Navy, going to school in of all places Millington, Tennessee just outside Memphis. I noticed in the Memphis Paper, they had race results for a place called Oaklawn. I thought I was pretty savvy about horse racing, but I had never heard of it. Not being the Internet age it took me a while to figure out it was in Arkansas, outside of Little Rock. I found out a guy in my barracks who drove by Little Rock on his way to Texarkana on weekends, so I got a ride from him to Little Rock and from there took the bus to the track. The season was winding down, but I got to spend three glorious Saturday afternoons in Hot Springs.

As I get close to the track, traffic starts to crawl, I don't remember any of this, I don't even know the tracks in the middle of downtown (the joy of taking the bus I guess, or none of this was here fifty years ago). The only think that sticks in my head was that last race in 1966, the Arkansas Derby had just run and everyone vanished. I was standing alone watching the gate load with nothing but loosing tickets and food wrappers everywhere and thinking when will I ever see another race. Enough for nostalgia today is a different day.

As I inch toward the parking lot I see they expect me to pay, haven't seen that for awhile, good thing I'm early it's only two bucks, Saratoga prices at private parking. I got out some cash to pay for admission, but it's free, guess casinos are good for something. Inside the track there are people, not in the casino, but in the grandstand, what a change from the last couple of days, maybe I warped back to "66". Today is a holiday card with two stakes races, The Razorback and The Southwest, also some out of town riders like Drayden Van Dyke, John Velasquez and Kent Desormeaux. So before I dub this place "The April place to be or Saratoga South" I better check a regular day. Forget handicapping here horses are all over the place, just going to enjoy the day, it's cloudy but mild. Sadly I don't get to see the stakes races have to leave after the fifth to catch my flight home from Little Rock. As I leave this time I don't think I'll be back fifty years from now.      


  Miles Cost Air-Fare Lodging Days Tracks
Leg-1 850 605.00 566.00 370.00 4 5
Total 850 605.00 556.00 370.00 4 5

This trip took a nice chunk out of the budget, the cost averaged about three hundred bucks per track, going to have to work on getting that number down.

After returning home, I check out the totals for Oaklawn. The attendance for the day was over 20,000 the on track handle was over a million and off track was over five million, not too shabby. I then checked the next race day, Wednesday and attendance fell off ninety percent, only 2,000 were on hand. It may not be Saratoga, but definitely a great place to spend the day. For March it would have been great to make it to Arizona, and check off Rilito Park, too expensive, have to book a flight early for next year. I guess that leaves me with the Florida trip, at least I know about Hialeah.