Oaklawn Park opens, 1905

Jan 15th 2013 08:30 am |

Oaklawn Park, circa 1906 (Library of Congress)

Happy New Year! To kick things off at Colin’s Ghost in 2013, I thought I would go with a topic that has been a mainstay here. The history of American racetracks has been a fixture on this site since we started in 2008.  One track that we have somehow ignored is Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, one of the gems of the current racing scene.

Oaklawn opened in 1905 but it barely registered a ripple in American newspapers at the time. It opened amid a bitter rivalry between Midwest race track owners John Condon and Ed Corrigan. However, less than two years after it opened, it stood idle like many racetracks across the country, a victim of the wave of state-sponsored gambling “reforms” that swept through the U.S. during the first decade of the last century.

When Oaklawn opened for business in 1905, with one of the first glass-enclosed and heated grandstands, its immediate popularity among Midwest horsemen was apparent from an article published in the Los Angeles Herald. Here is how it was reported February 10 1905, two weeks from opening day:

Ever fickle as a weather vane, public sentiment, as represented by the attitude of the horsemen assembled [in Hot Springs, Arkansas], which two weeks back was supposed to be looking away from the Western Jockey club, has veered around in the last few days and almost everyone with a stable worth mentioning has joined in a rush to secure stabling at Oaklawn, John Condon’s elegant new race track here.”

Secretary Nathanson has found himself the most sought after person in Hot Springs, and with horsemen the burning question of the hour has been ‘Will I get stalls at Oaklawn?’…

“…As Oaklawn nears completion horsemen and visitors are coming to realize that here among the Ozark mountains John Condon has built a racing plant that is a gem, having elaborated in lavish manner the somewhat extravagant plans begun by Dugan and Stuart [Charles Dugan and Dan Stuart were, along with Condon, the founders of the Oaklawn Jockey Club].

The total expenditure to date is said to exceed $400,000, and the end is not yet. A sumptuous clubhouse is under consideration and much money is to be spent in beautifying the infield. Half a million dollars is a lot of money to put into a race track in Arkansas, but it is figured that the first cost will approximate that figure when all the contemplated improvements have been made.”

The program book for the first nine days of the meeting, which will open a week from Monday, shows an array of purses liberal beyond expectation. For instance, the first days [total purse] offering is $3900…

If nature will only regain its good humor and smile with warmth and approval much good sport should mark the inaugural meeting of thirty days at the elegant new Oaklawn race course…”

Even with its well-funded purses and high-end facility, racing would end at Oaklawn in 1907 and not return until 1917. During its dark days, an article in 1911 was published in the Omaha Daily Bee under the headline: “Thirty Race Tracks Closed” with the sub-headline: “Anti-gambling legislation causes discontinuance of circuits…fights against the agitation prove to be fruitless.” The article ran through a detailed narrative of state-sanctioned track closures that commenced in New Jersey during the 1890s.  It  had this about the Arkansas track:

[John] Condon put nearly a million dollars into Oaklawn Park at Hot Springs, Ark., only to find that after one season the reformers held the whip hand in the legislature at Little Rock. A bill prohibiting bookmakers became a law and Oaklawn, together with another track at the Springs [Essex Park] became worthless.”

Condon would see little return on his investment in Oaklawn. He was dead by the time racing returned there a decade later in 1917. It  re-opened under the ownership of Louis Cella, a stake holder in the track from its founding. However, the state legislature put an end to racing in Arkansas again in 1919. The track was still owned by the Cella family fifteen years later when racing came back for good in 1934.  In 1935, parimutuel wagering was legalized under the same piece of legislation that formed the Arkansas Racing Commission.

Oaklawn saw less than five years of racing in its first thirty years of existence. It is amazing that it survives and prospers today with the Cella family still running the operation.



After a busy year in my non-racing life, I’m looking forward to a more productive year here at Colin’s Ghost in 2013. This year will be the fifth for the site, which is hard to believe.

Image of Oaklawn Park from the Library of Congress

“Morris Going to Oaklawn Track,” Los Angeles Herald, 10 February 1905

“Thirty Race Tracks Closed,” Omaha Daily Bee, 1911 March 19

The Library of Congress has a great collection of historic images of Hot Springs, Arkansas

The Oaklawn Park website has an excellent history of the track

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas has a history of Oaklawn Park

Thanks for reading and good luck!

Filed in Oaklawn Park,Race Tracks, United States,thoroughbred racing history

2 Responses to “Oaklawn Park opens, 1905”

  1. Larry M says:

    Oaklawn of Virginia Clinton Kelley fame. The papers of the time (Bill’s campaign for President) tended to paint Oaklawn as somewhat of a den of many vices, I never quite understood that take. I always thought of it as one of the venerable older “resort” tracks and home of some good stakes races.

  2. TJ Connick says:

    Despite getting out of the gate first, Essex Park was distanced and soundly beaten by Oaklawn. The Hot Springs Jockey Club ran meetings in 1904 and 1905 at the track on Malvern Road.

    The steady Mars Cassidy did the starting in the 1904 season. Will follow with more if I can.

    Here’s to a good 2013.