A hot time in Hot Springs, or on the road to real excitement By Bernard Kroviak, CDC Gaming Reports February 21, 2020 at 12:26 am I wrote about racehorse names in my last article, but I sadly neglected to mention one of the most interesting horse names of all time, Pollard’s Vision. Red Pollard was a jockey in the 1940’s, probably most notable today for riding the great Seabiscuit. He was also, as it happens, blind in one eye. So, when owner David Moore bought a yearling in 2002 with vision in only one eye due to a birth defect, he chose to honor old Red by naming the colt Pollard’s Vision, after the famous jockey. Horses with such a handicap seldom are successful on the track, since their vision is severely hampered, and not being able to see all the things going on around them can make horses very skittish. Mr. Moore, who himself was nearly blind in his left eye, gave his horse a chance to prove he could overcome this handicap, but doubt crept in when, in his first start, the young horse freaked and threw his rider just after leaving the starting gate. With a bit more training and patience on everyone’s part, this two-year-old Pollard’s Vision began to show the promise that his owner felt was in him. He broke his maiden at Saratoga, beginning a trip down a road that just might, with some luck, lead to the Kentucky Derby. Pollard’s Vision went on to win the Lone Star Derby, the Illinois Derby, and finish second in both the Pennsylvania and Ohio Derby. And he did wind up running in the 2004 Kentucky Derby, albeit with a finish well up the track behind the leaders. When he retired, his record showed 6 wins, and he’d finished in the money in 17 of the 23 races in which he ran, earning over $1.4 million: not too shabby for a one-eyed colt. As for me, it was evident after my initial racing experience with The Gray Dog that this was something I would have to try again, despite the fact that my first foray did not lead to fame, fortune, or even a profit. I soon found two new partners, Al and Mary. All we needed now was a horse to race. Coincidentally, my former partner with Monsieur Leclercq, Anne, had two 3-year-old fillies she was willing to sell, both of which had already broken their maidens. We settled on a price, and our new partnership became the proud owners of Martha D and Strike Number One. Martha was named after a relative of Anne’s; the other’s name came from the filly’s mother, Striking Girl, coupled with her trainer’s love of baseball. These two fillies would take us on a ride that would both solidify my love of the game and keep us in it for several years to come. Oaklawn’s main gate But that story can wait. Right now, I want to talk about Oaklawn Park. The Hot Springs, Arkansas track opened its spring meet on January 24. Hot Springs, of course, is both the boyhood home of former President Bill Clinton and home to the famous hot springs where people go to take the healing baths. Years ago, my friends and I visited New Orleans and the Fair Grounds track there. After our week in NOLA, we decided to stop at Oaklawn on our way back to Ohio. We had never been there but thought it might be a fun diversion and a chance to soak up a little history, since Oaklawn, at the time, was nearly a century old. The track is about 50 miles due northwest of Little Rock, Arkansas. To add to the adventure, we decided to take the back roads there. As we drove along the winding two-lane highways, one took us through the town of Dirtwater Springs, Arkansas. Yes, that’s the real the name of the town. Probably unsurprisingly, it’s a small town with a single stop light. Since this trip took place only a couple of years after 9/11, we couldn’t help but wonder if Dirtwater Springs was taking measures to prevent terrorist attacks, like much of the rest of the country was doing at the time. We quietly chuckled over the idea. The Hot Springs High School sign We’d made an advanced reservation at a motel in Hot Springs. Without the aid of the internet, we had no idea what we were actually getting, but the place was cheap and close to the track. Once we got into town, we went to the address we’d been given, but when we got there, all we saw was an old boarded-up building. The view from the street Bewildered, we wondered what was going on. Was the place derelict? After a few minutes we realized our “deluxe” accommodations were hidden behind that old building, which was right on Main Street within walking distance to the track. The Capri Motel was a real dump, but it was cheap, and what the heck, it fit our aesthetic and budget. We checked in and went to sleep. About 3:00 am we heard a knock on the door and then, almost immediately, a voice loudly asking for the guy who had the drugs for sale. It was then that we realized just how seedy this place really was. The Motel Capri Oaklawn Park itself, however, was beautiful. Years earlier, they had introduced a slot-type game called Instant Racing. Gambling was illegal in the state at the time, but this was allowed because it was based on the results of previous horse races. This new income gave the purses at the track a big boost, and soon many big-time trainers and horses were there to race. The next morning, after a stop at the local Waffle House for breakfast, we started walking to the track. When we got there, we were again shocked, this time because we saw twin blonde girls, both young and very cute, signing autographs. They were Katie and Jenna, the TV hosts of racing at old Beulah Park in Columbus, Ohio. They were two of the first women to ever handicap horses for TV simulcasts of races – pioneers, really – but were likely only even reasonably well-known to those of us who followed racing at Beulah Park, another old dump of a track. But here they were in Arkansas, signing autographs like real, honest-to-goodness personalities. It made me happy to see them. American Pharaoh in the Arkansas Derby post parade Many years later I visited Oaklawn again, this time with friends who lived in Arkansas. That time, the only true celebrity we saw was a horse named American Pharaoh, who’d been shipped there to run in the Arkansas Derby, Oaklawn’s premier race. We saw him win that race, and, later the Kentucky Derby, which I attended with my son. He followed that with wins in the Preakness and Belmont to become the first horse since Affirmed, 37 years prior, to win the Triple Crown – and, after winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the only horse ever to win the Grand Slam of Thoroughbred racing. Which you probably already knew. Inside Oaklawn Today, Oaklawn has a real Vegas-style casino, since the recent passage of legislation that has made table gaming legal in the state. This new source of income means that Oaklawn now has some of the highest purses in the country. It turned out our initial Oaklawn experience was unique, for many reasons, and well worth the drive, even if took an extra 100 miles or so to get there. The trek back to Ohio was a long one, so later that evening, as we closed in on Memphis, we decided to stop and take in some music on Beale Street. After a stop at a great blues place, it was back to the road. We were somewhere between Memphis and Nashville, it was dark, and we were pretty tired, so we started to look for a motel. We saw a sign for one in the distance; fortunately, it also had a gas station next to it. We filled up the car, paid the young girl at the register, parked, and started to walk toward the motel. We’d gone about 50 yards when we heard the gunshot. It sounded like it had come from the gas station. It was pitch black, so we could not see what was going on. What to do? I said we had to go back and see if she was alright. After a quick group discussion, I started walking, with much trepidation, back to the station. Fortunately, just then a police car showed up, which eliminated the need for my foolish attempt at helping. The next morning before we left, we stopped at the gas station to see if the young lady was alright and inquired as to what had happened. The morning light revealed a strip club right across the street. The author at the Welcome to Hot Springs sign We were told that two patrons had gotten into a “discussion” there that led to one of them firing a shot at the gas station as they left the joint. No one was hurt, the attendant was fine, and we headed home with some great stories to share with our friends back in Ohio. The moral of our experience, I suppose, is that one never knows what experiences one might have when traveling to a racetrack. Just try to avoid the drug dealers and the gunshots.