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Monday, January 14, 2013
Live it up

By Jay Cronley
Special to ESPN.com

I haven't been to the live horse races in so long, I've almost forgotten how to do it.

First, you slow down, a good start to anything. Making a wager every 30 minutes can seem like sleepwalking.

Anymore, most trips to the live horse races involve scenery and history: Santa Anita, Keeneland, Del Mar, Oaklawn Park, Saratoga, Churchill Downs, Belmont Park. At the remote sections of the old New York track, you expect to see tour guides, not ticket takers. The problem with Belmont Park outside the Belmont States is the problem with places like Mountaineer: Why go when you can watch on a screen?

I am going to Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., this spring.

This place is typical of what the best of live horse racing has to offer, a mini-vacation, and it belies any theory that the sport is dead, or even limping. Thanks to video game profits, Oaklawn Park will move through the spring with record purses totaling about $350,000 per day, including maiden special races worth $53,000, about half the purse money will come from slot and video game gambling profits. Hot Springs is a small town. What do they do over there, play the machines in their sleep?

Horse racing now has two chief types of sites. One is the nuts and bolts track that perhaps has old fenders in the infield, places where the action is from the simulcast joints and the only live audience is mostly a horse's connections. The Arkansas horse racing experience is the best the sport could expect. Oaklawn Park is the only game in town, and, depending on how lousy the Razorback football and basketball teams are, the only game in the state. The climate is fine, as spring comes early to Hot Spring, which rests in the hills like a ball in a glove. Lakes are all around: fish in the morning, horse races in the afternoon. Largemouth bass sometimes school on nearby Lake Ouachita, in which case you can catch one with a bottle cap.

Bill Clinton and Al Capone lived in Hot Springs.

The big money, small town atmosphere is a natural road to the Kentucky Derby: The timing and geography make for ideal Derby prep races. Under the new Derby points system, springtime races at Louisiana Downs and Oaklawn Park have been awarded the same numerical values. You can go ahead and throw out the Louisiana Derby winner now, and plan to play Oaklawn's best three-year old.

According to some notes, this is what's required for a live horse racing experience at a track where the good old days are still running: A ticket for a reserved seat. An awareness of pickpockets. Binoculars. Patience. The best thing that can be said for attending the live horse races is that you usually win more when you focus on one race every half hour than you do when you spray wagers around simulcast or home wagering screens. You win more at the live races because you can actually see the horses and how they're moving and how they've been cared for, you can feel a track bias, and you can observe from a few feet away which jockeys appear to have been carried hard and put up all wet.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com.