OAKLAWN ANNOUNCES $100 MILLION-PLUS EXPANSION WITH CONSTRUCTION OF HIGH-RISE HOTEL, EVENT CENTER AND EXPANDED GAMING AREA

NOVEMBER 19, 2018

 

Oaklawn Racing and Gaming today announced plans to build an expansion project in excess of $100 million that includes the construction of a high-rise hotel, multi-purpose event center, a larger gaming area, and additional on-site parking.

The project is one of the largest hospitality investments in the history of Arkansas.

“This historic announcement represents a new chapter in the rich 114-year history of Oaklawn,” said Louis Cella, president of Oaklawn Jockey Club. “As we enhance the entertainment experience for our customers, we will also further elevate thoroughbred racing and help make Arkansas and Hot Springs even stronger regional tourism destinations.”

The yet-to-be-named hotel will be seven stories with 200 rooms, including two presidential suites. Amenities will include an outdoor swimming pool, a luxury spa, fitness center and restaurant.

“The hotel will offer a unique vantage point for our patrons in that it will overlook the track. Imagine the spectacular view as the horses are heading down the stretch,” said Cella. “Our goal is to achieve 4-star status.”

Adjacent to the hotel will be a 14,000 square-foot multi-purpose events center that will accommodate up to 1,500 people for various events such as concerts, meetings, banquets and weddings.

The project also includes the addition of approximately 28,000 square feet of gaming space and significantly expanded parking.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson said the Oaklawn expansion will be monumental.

“The state of Arkansas is grateful to Louis and his family for their commitment to growing their business right here at home,” said Gov. Hutchinson. “This project, which will be financed exclusively with private funds, not only represents one of, if not the largest, tourism related expansion projects in our history, it will also rank among the state’s largest economic development projects in 2019.”

Kane Webb, director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, says the Oaklawn expansion will create more success stories for Arkansas’ thriving tourism industry.

“Hot Springs is already one of the top tourism destinations in the South,” said Webb. “This expansion will thrust Hot Springs into the category of the nation’s elite vacation and recreation locations.”

Cella says the development will create new partnership opportunities with the city of Hot Springs in that marketing efforts will be designed to complement those of the city’s. He says while various on-site amenities will be offered, Oaklawn will want guests to enjoy all that Hot Springs has to offer including Hot Springs National Park, lakes, hiking and biking trails, museums, restaurants, shopping and more.

Steve Arrison, CEO of the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, says the events center and hotel rooms will be beneficial to Hot Springs and Arkansas.

“Oaklawn’s project will allow Hot Springs to attract more and larger meetings and conventions,” said Arrison. “This creates exciting opportunities for Hot Springs tourism.”

An expansion project of this magnitude, Cella says, requires years of planning and the development of infrastructure.

“While one may assume that today’s announcement comes in response to the passage of Issue 4 on November 6, we actually began planning for this during our last expansion in 2014,” said Cella. “Our goal then, as it is now, is to use a quality gaming experience to enhance racing and help attract even more great champions to Arkansas such as Smarty Jones, Zenyatta, and American Pharoah.”

Construction on the project will begin in May immediately following completion of the 2019 racing season. The target completion date for the gaming expansion is January 2020 with the hotel and event center to be completed in late 2020.

As it has for two previous Oaklawn projects, HBG Design of Memphis is the architectural firm for this new expansion.

Flintco Construction, with an Arkansas headquarters located in Springdale, is the contractor on the project. The company estimates that as many as 2,300 jobs will be created during the construction phase.

“The Cellas helped found Oaklawn in the early 1900’s,” said Wayne Smith, general manager of Oaklawn. “As they have for more than a century, the family continues to make significant investments in Arkansas. This will be the third major project at Oaklawn since 2008.”

This major expansion represents the second significant announcement at Oaklawn since Louis Cella succeeded his late father, Charles, as president of Oaklawn Jockey Club last December.

In April of this year, Oaklawn announced it will shift its racing season later in the calendar and for the first time will continue racing into May. It’s the biggest change in the traditional Oaklawn racing schedule since World War II.

Expansion Project Fact Sheet

About the project:

  • Oaklawn is investing in excess of $100 million to further elevate thoroughbred racing and make Oaklawn and Hot Springs an even stronger regional tourism destination.
  • The Oaklawn expansion will be one of the largest hospitality investments in the history of Arkansas.
  • This is a private investment. No public dollars are being used.
  • The project will focus on five main areas:
    • Enhanced racing experience
    • 4-star hotel and spa
    • Multi-purpose event center
    • Expanded gaming area
    • Additional on-site parking
    • This expansion project has been in the planning stages since 2014.
    • This will be Oaklawn’s third major construction project since 2008.

About the hotel/multi-purpose event center:

  • The hotel will be 7 stories tall with 200 luxury rooms, including two presidential suites.
  • The goal is for the hotel to achieve 4-star status.
  • The hotel will offer patrons a unique vantage point in that it will overlook the racetrack on one side with a beautiful view of the lakes and mountains on the other.
  • Room rates will be competitive with other properties of this quality.
  • The hotel will include:
    • outdoor swimming pool
    • luxury spa
    • fitness center
    • restaurant
    • multi-purpose event center
    • individual meeting rooms
    • The 14,000 square-foot multi-purpose event center will accommodate up to 1,500 people for events ranging from concerts, to meetings, to banquets, to weddings.
    • Oaklawn is working with the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission to ensure that the multi-purpose event center compliments efforts of the Hot Springs convention center and arena. The partnership will help attract more and larger meetings and conventions to the city.
    • The project includes expanded on-site parking to accommodate more vehicles.
    • A shuttle service will be available to transport patrons from their vehicles to the facility.  Shuttle stops will be strategically located throughout the parking areas.

About the gaming expansion:

  • The new expansion will add approximately 28,000 square-feet of gaming space.
  • The enhanced gaming experience will allow Oaklawn to provide larger purses to help attract the top thoroughbreds joining a long line of champions such as Smarty Jones, Zenyatta and American Pharoah.

About the construction:

  • HBG Design of Memphis is the architectural firm on the project. This will represent the firm’s third expansion design for Oaklawn.
  • Flintco Construction, with Arkansas headquarters located in Springdale, is the contractor on the project. Flintco has managed major construction projects all over Arkansas.
  • Construction will begin in May, immediately following the completion of the 2019 racing season.
  • Target completion dates:
    • Gaming expansion – January 2020
    • Hotel and multi-purpose event center – Late 2020

About economic impact:

  • Oaklawn’s reputation as a year-round tourism destination will be enhanced. Hotel guests will have easy access to Hot Springs National Park, area lakes, hiking and biking trails, museums, amusement parks, and restaurants representing a significant economic impact to the city of Hot Springs and the state of Arkansas.
  • Flintco estimates that as many as 2,300 construction jobs will be created during the construction phase.
  • Though a specific number is still under consideration, Oaklawn anticipates several hundred additional jobs will be created in expanded areas.

About the Oaklawn principals:

  • Louis Cella, president of Oaklawn Jockey Club, succeeded his late father, Charles, in December 2017. The Cella family were among the founding partners in Oaklawn in the early 1900s. Louis is a graduate of the University of Arkansas School of Law, past Chairman of the Arkansas Cancer Research Center Foundation, Director of the UAMS Foundation Fund Board and Director of the Myeloma Institute. Louis’ wife, Rochelle Dean, is from England, Arkansas.
  • Wayne Smith, general manager of Oaklawn, joined the racetrack in 2016 with extensive experience in working with resort properties around the world for ITT-Sheraton, MGM Grand and Caesar’s Entertainment.  He also worked for Empire City Racing and Gaming in New York and Penn Gaming in Illinois.
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Oaklawn Park to Extend 2019 Meet Three Weeks

Oaklawn Park 2019 meet will run through first Saturday in May.

 

Oaklawn Park plans to make the most significant change to its racing schedule since World War II.

The Arkansas oval is a momentum-driven meet that traditionally runs its biggest race, the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1), on closing day. But in 2019, Oaklawn will open Jan. 25 and run through May 4, three weeks after the Arkansas Derby. Other than 1945, when the track had to postpone its season until the fall because of wartime restrictions, Oaklawn has traditionally concluded its racing season with the Arkansas Derby in mid-April.

Late April 11, the Arkansas Racing Commission unanimously approved Oaklawn’s request to race 57 days in 2019, a dramatic philosophical shift for a track that prides itself on the status quo. Oaklawn’s new schedule pushes its start date two weeks later than normal and end date three weeks later than normal, meaning dates for the Hot Springs, Ark., oval will conflict, or further conflict, with venues that normally receive its horses following the meet’s conclusion.

“Frankly, it’s all about the weather,” said Oaklawn President Louis Cella, whose family has owned Oaklawn for more than a century. “We wanted to make sure that was right for the city of Hot Springs. This was not just a one-dimensional decision, just for Oaklawn. This is for our horsemen. We hear it all the time over the years. Can we get out of January?”

Oaklawn was scheduled to race 57 days this year, but it lost two dates in January to winter weather. Over the last decade, Oaklawn has lost 14 days in January due to winter weather.

“I love it,” trainer Mac Robertson said of the new schedule. “I hate January racing. January is just a hard month to train in Arkansas. Now, they’ll even get better horses coming in.”

Cella said the new schedule, which was endorsed by the Arkansas division of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, had been discussed for “every bit of three years,” adding his late father, Charles, was aware of the talks. Charles Cella, known for being fiercely independent, was Oaklawn’s president from 1968 until his death in December.

Louis Cella said talk of the new dates began to intensify last summer. But word of a potential change didn’t begin to leak out until late March.

“It has been a secret, and we tried to keep it internally,” Cella said. “However, there are no secrets at a racetrack. I was walking through the grandstand last week and I had two fans come up to me, slapping me on the back, congratulating me with the new schedule.”

Asked if the new dates open the possibility of installing a turf course or reviving 2-year-old racing for the first time since the 1970s, Cella said, “No and No.”

“But I never want to cut it off and say ‘No,’ definitively,” Cella said. “But that’s not on the radar. That’s not something we’ve discussed, nor is this a decision that we’ve made in anticipation of that.”

David Longinotti, Oaklawn’s director of racing, said the new schedule will not change the placement of the Arkansas Derby, which will continue to be run three weeks before the Kentucky Derby, or the normal Thursday-Sunday racing format.

Oaklawn has run the Arkansas Derby three weeks before the Kentucky Derby every year since 1996. It had previously been two weeks before the Run for the Roses. Now, Oaklawn’s 2019 season will end on Kentucky Derby Day.

At this time, Longinotti said he doesn’t envision any plans to alter the 3-year-old stakes schedule for males or females.

“My guess is, if I were a gambling man, I’d probably put the Smarty Jones (Stakes, G3) on opening day, and then progress from there with our 3-year-old series,” Longinotti said. “We still have 57 days to cover. We’ve got one more weekend to cover than we did this year, 15 weekends instead of 14. Lots of meetings between Sunday and probably late June and early July.”

“This is going to be great for racing and great for Arkansas,” Arkansas Racing Commission Chairman Alex Lieblong said. “I applaud Mr. Cella and Oaklawn for thinking outside the box. This is proof again of their commitment to quality racing.”

Arkansas Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association Board (HBPA) members agreed.

“We are essentially trading January race days, when there is always the chance of cancellation due to weather, for April race dates, when Arkansas weather is at its finest,” said board member Bill Walmsley, who has served as national president of the organization. “The later closing should be an additional enticement to the top racing stables to come to Arkansas, and continuing to race following the Arkansas Derby will keep the excitement for racing going another three weeks.”

Linda Gaston, President of the Arkansas HBPA Chapter, said the shift will create more exciting days of racing.

“This makes all the sense in the world,” she said. “Oaklawn is one of the top tracks in America with some of the richest purses. It stands to reason that showcasing racing in the best possible weather will benefit the entire program. Our board supported this plan unanimously.”

The change to the racing calendar will also have an impact on the economy for Hot Springs and Central Arkansas, according to Gary Troutman, President of the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce and Metro Partnership.

“Oaklawn has always been one of the pillars of our economy,” Troutman said. “This change to the racing schedule will greatly enhance our local businesses that rely on racing fans coming to town.”

Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs, agreed. “Oaklawn continuing to race after the Arkansas Derby should be a major bonus to the tourism business in our area,” he said. “The weather is always better in April and May than it is in early January, and that will mean larger crowds at Oaklawn. This means more visitors at our hotels and restaurants, so it’s a win-win.”

Oaklawn will maintain its regular Thursday—Sunday schedule. In addition, it will race Presidents’ Day, Feb. 18. The Arkansas Derby, which has become one of the most productive Triple Crown prep races over the last 15 years, will be run April 13.

“Arkansas Derby Day will still be the pinnacle of the season,” Cella said. “But now, live racing at Oaklawn will also be part of the Kentucky Derby experience three weeks later, when our racing fans will be able to cheer on the horses representing them in Louisville.”

Oaklawn has never hesitated to try new things. In the 1970s, Oaklawn founded the Racing Festival of the South, whose multi-stakes card format has been copied by numerous racetracks. In the ’90s, Oaklawn was the first track to implement full-card commingled simulcasting, which is now a staple around the world. At the turn of the 21st century, Oaklawn created Instant Racing, which eventually led to the creation of Electric Games of Skill and 18 consecutive seasons of purse increases.

Based on traditional dates of other tracks, Oaklawn’s new schedule means it will overlap with Keeneland‘s entire spring meet, the first week of Churchill Downs, and a handful of days at Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie and Prairie Meadows.

Trainer Will VanMeter has wintered at Oaklawn every year since going out on his own in 2013, but he also has strong ties to Keeneland.

VanMeter grew up in Lexington—his father Tom is a prominent Kentucky sales consigner and equine veterinarian—and has permanent stabling in Keeneland’s Rice Road barn area.

“We had to beg, borrow, and steal just to get a foothold there,” said VanMeter, a former assistant under Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. “We don’t want to lose it.”

VanMeter said it will be difficult to predict how things will shake out until the new schedule is run for the first time.

“I think it’s going to affect everybody on an individual basis because every individual trainer, owner, (and) jockey have different goals, different desires to compete at different jurisdictions,” VanMeter said. “Us personally, Keeneland and Oaklawn are the two places that we want to compete and have a presence at. We’re going to find a way to satisfy both those desires.”

VanMeter’s biggest client is Arkansas lumberman John Ed Anthony, who has campaigned Eclipse Award winners Temperence Hill, Vanlandingham, and Prairie Bayou. VanMeter is scheduled to receive his first horse for another prominent Arkansas owner, Frank Fletcher, when the Oaklawn meeting ends Saturday.

“I think the future of racing is very strong in both places,” VanMeter said. “We want to grow our business through people that want to compete at Oaklawn and people that want to compete at Keeneland. We’re going to find a way to make it work.”

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