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Five Days of Racing: Will Rogers Downs and Oaklawn Park (4/2/2008)

Both Will Rogers Downs (WRD) and Oaklawn Park , while completely different physically from each other and from Canterbury, were well run operations that had something to offer to the horseplayer. Every racetrack is unique but special in its own way. Its all racing in the end. This remains the greatest game on the planet. After five consecutive days of racing I returned home to the safe confines of Canterbury Park, and realized once again that we horseplayers have it pretty good in Shakopee.
We were treated extremely well at both WRD and Oaklawn and I never got the feeling that this was an exception to the rule. Customer service at both locations seemed a priority.
While operating on different scales, both venues were very accessible for the live racing fan. Oaklawn’s grandstand is huge and for a person that lacks a sense of direction, very daunting. I found myself wandering stairwells from floor to floor just hoping to find a sign of life. WRD is totally different world. The open-air grandstand is tiny in comparison, but that just means that everything you need is right there. Tellers are convenient, concession stands aren’t hidden away, and the track apron is big and comfortable. The paddock at WRD, located at the end of the grandstand, offered great sightlines whereas Oaklawn’s paddock is inside the grandstand with the stalls back to back offering very little chance to view the horses unless you make a beeline there right after the preceding race as the limited standing room along the railing fills up instantly.
On Wednesday, Oaklawn’s attendance was listed as just south of 6,000. The main level was crowded but the further up you went the more square footage you had to yourself. Concession stands were everywhere as were tellers. Neither seemed to be overworked on this sunny weekday. A sure sign that this is a racing town, and you see it at other tracks with a history, are the number of box seats that are purchased by local companies for the season. People go to the races in Hot Springs. It’s a resort city. Racing is an event and a part of the town’s history. I’d been told by many fans that you have to experience Oaklawn to appreciate it. It’s a totally different animal than say Prairie Meadows or even the glamorous Arlington Park. It’s pretty much what a racetrack experience should be.
And if you happen to be driving by Claremore, OK during racing season don’t do yourself a disservice by skipping WRD.
Simulcasting is the lifeblood of horseracing. Travel to other tracks and you’ll return to Canterbury with an appreciation for what we have here. I’d stack up our simulcast line-up and facility against anyone.
Will Rogers Downs (WRD) has a user friendly simulcast set-up. Two large rooms on track level are available to horseplayers plus there is a turf club on the second level. Both Oklahoma and Arkansas still allow smoking indoors and both respect the Clean Indoor Air Act, providing ample space and separation between those that wish to smoke and those that don’t. At WRD, the simulcast rooms have large tables with plenty of space to spread out your Daily Racing Form. Large TVs line the front wall. Tellers and screen activated wagering machines are readily available. The waitress with the free soda was never more than five minutes away. They offer a full array of tracks making this a darn good place to play the horses.
Oaklawn was a bit of a mystery to me as far as simulcast wagering goes. There were several small areas set up for simulcasting throughout the huge plant. Some had tables and others were just benches. On the main level above the tellers on the paddock end of the building were large screen monitors and players always seemed to be involved in the outcome of a simulcast race, but there was no where to sit. I am guessing maybe that this area is rearranged and used in the non-live racing season. The outgoing simulcast handle on Wednesday was about $80,000. On Thursday when Santa Anita was running again Oaklawn’s simo handle was just over $100,000. Not much different than Canterbury. But I’ll take the more Vegas like layout of Canterbury’s simulcast center any day.
Are SAM machines that difficult to design? Some of the SciGames machines we have at Canterbury are ancient but they are built for speed and intuition. During my five-day excursion I was never able to box a single horse with multiple horses in the exacta. I had to bet it over and under on separate tickets. And never make the mistake of hitting the finish button. One would think, like at Canterbury, finish would just give you your wagers and remaining balance. Nope. It wipes out all the bets and returns the beginning balance. Its odd, frustrating, and time consuming. Now I know why Canterbury has one of the highest percentage of SAM machine wagers to total wagers in the country. Because the SAMs actually allow you to wager. Someday the industry will take the tote system in-house perhaps and solve this mess.
Instant Racing at Oaklawn
Oaklawn has slot-infused purses. The machines aren’t called slots however and operate on the premise of being parimutuel. The Instant Racing room (read slot parlor) is tucked away on track level and operates from 11am until sometime after midnight. I’m not sure exactly how these machines made it through the Arkansas legislature but evidently they are parimutuel in nature yet to a novice seem to operate just like a slot machine with the need to possibly press an additional button or two. The idea, as far as I could tell, is to predict the 1-2-3 outcome of a previously run race but that really is only a formality and had I played longer I am guessing there was a way around selecting three numbers before spinning. I remember a decade ago when Oaklawn called looking for video of Canterbury races that met certain criteria. They must have collected thousands of races from dozens of tracks. There is minimal ‘handicapping’ data provided in a pie chart on the display screen. You select your numbers and spin. While the video reels, and you can play multiple lines just like a slot, come to rest, a video the size of a postage stamp shows the final 20 yards of a previously run horserace in the upper right corner. Call them what you will but these Instant Racing machines have been a boon to purses and have allowed Oaklawn to maintain high quality racing.
Racetrack Food
If you are concerned about nutrition, a racetrack probably wouldn’t be the first place that crosses your mind. But racetrack food is unique and regional fare is part of the mix. At Canterbury the daily special is often a hotdish or casserole of some sort. Only in Minnesota. I didn’t see a hotdish or casserole after crossing into Iowa. Well, there was that leftover, cold, green bean casserole at Slim’s Bar in Hot Springs but that is another story for a different blog. Oklahoma is barbeque country. At WRD there is a smoker just off the track apron. Ribs, chicken and brisket and smoked daily. I was somehow talked into a smoked bologna sandwich. What the heck, when in Rome……. Thickly sliced bologna between two slices of white bread. Not much more needs to be said.Oaklawn had concession stands galore offering everything from hotdogs to fresh oysters. The corned beef sandwich is a must.
Luis Quinonez
I ran into jockey agent Gerry DiLaura along with Canterbury Hall of Fame rider Luis Quinonez at the Oaklawn track kitchen. Luis led the Canterbury standings from 1995 to 1999 and was leading rider at Oaklawn in 2007. He currently is fourth with 30 wins. Luis may have been the best all around rider we have seen in Shakopee since reopening in 1995. He rode a lot of live horses not only because he was very talented but also because he worked hard and he knew how to conduct business. He carried himself with a confident grace and style that isn’t common regardless of occupation. You couldn’t help but like The Q. It didn’t hurt to have DiLaura in his corner either. Gerry could spin you and somehow make you feel good about it. If the money were better here I’d guess we might see this tandem back in Shakopee giving Richard Grunder a run for the money.
Oaklawn Bob
Walk into Oaklawn and it feels like stepping back in time. One has the sense that things have been done the same way for decades and no one can find a reason to change. Nor for that matter should they. Exit the elevator on press box level and you’d better have a credential or a very good story to get past Bob. I didn’t ask him but I bet Bob has been at this post for a long time. I’ve always thought that racetrack employees should like racing. And on a live race day they, if asked, should be able to give you a horse. Otherwise why would you be at the track? There are easier ways to make a living. Bob had no trouble in that department; he had something in every race. His program was always at hand and it was evident he did his homework the night before because next to each runner was scribbled a number. I never asked what the numbers meant because most of us have a magic number that must have worked at one time or another and explaining it, or attempting to, only confuses the issue. It is enough that the horse has a number. Maybe the magic numbers were cold as I don’t recall Bob giving me a winner over the three days but then my secret calculations weren’t much help to him either.
Fifteen In A Row
Peppers Pride won her 15th consecutive race on Sunday, March 23. It seems some racetrack elitists have a problem recognizing the accomplishment because it didn’t happen in New York, Kentucky or California. Anytime a thoroughbred shows up to race 15 consecutive times it is a special animal. She didn’t pick her competition. She just crushed them.