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And they're off: City comes alive for live race meet

Shortly after the holidays each year, Hot Springs shifts gears to kick off the live race meet at Oaklawn Park. Now in its 114th year, thoroughbred racing has always been synonymous with Hot Springs.

The track has always fascinated me. Growing up, I wanted to be one of two things -- a pony girl or a photographer. I chose the latter (adding writing soon after) having never ridden a horse until adulthood.

When I was very young, my mom would get me up early for school during the live meet, and we would park on the dirt lot on Talisman Street to watch the silhouettes of the horses gallop in front of the morning sun. To this day, if I get up early enough, I'll stop in that same spot to watch them train.

But quite possibly our family's closest connection to Oaklawn was my grandfather "Shorty" Bennett's service station, which was located on Central Avenue just across the street from the track for many, many years. He stayed busiest when some of his best customers came to town for the live meet. Later, when Bennett's Auto Service moved to Golf Links Road, the horsemen continued to patronize his business during the live meet.

The same can be said for many businesses in Hot Springs with the sheer number of workers and visitors that come into town each year just for the sport.

Just a few years ago, we set out to tell the stories of the people who make the live meet run as smoothly as possible with a series highlighting the various occupations along the back side -- from hot walkers to trainers.

In the past year, three new barns were built on the back side, 50 new box seats were added to the grand stand, and purses increased to a record $30 million -- up from $28 million in 2017.

Media Relations Manager Jennifer Hoyt reported that the workforce nearly doubles each live meet, and another 500 people make their living in the barn area with jobs ranging from hot walkers, to veterinarians and everything in between.

Hoyt added that because of the increased purses, 118 trainers were awarded barns for 2018, this including 18 new trainers. Additionally, 36 jockeys applied for licenses, 11 of which are new.

Thursday's unveiling of a sculpture commemorating Triple Crown winter American Pharoah added a finishing touch to the Oaklawn Park product.

As this live meet kicks off, it seems we're in for an exciting season -- one I know I'll be watching. See you at the races.

Staff writer Beth Reed covers education, Oaklawn and tourism for The Sentinel-Record.

Editorial on 01/12/2018

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