Folks head to the Arkansas resort of Hot Springs this time of year for many reasons. Some come to marvel at dogwoods blossoming in the picturesque Ouachita Mountains. Others follow in the footsteps of Indian tribes who for hundreds of years were drawn to the healing waters that gave the town its name. Odds are two to one, though, that the vast majority come to Hot Springs for the fifth season, that time between February and April when the Oaklawn Jockey Club hosts the finest assemblage of thoroughbred racehorses this side of Churchill Downs.
“C’mon, c’mon, we’re gonna be late!” hollered the red-faced man who gave me a light punch on the shoulder as he huffed and puffed past. Three hundred yards from the gates of Oaklawn, with the post time less than a minute away, I sprinted behind him and made it inside just in time to see the horses move to the starting gate. At the nearest window, I plunked down a ten on number six to win and proceeded to watch both ten and six fade in the stretch.
It’s heady stuff, playing the ponies in a setting rife with pomp and tradition. Long before lesser tracks started springing up along every highway port of entry across the Texas line, Hot Springs was known not only as a haven for horse racing but also as a wide-open gambling town—a playground of the Chicago Mafia and a mecca for people seeking all things hotsy-totsy. For Texans, going to Hot Springs was a rite of passage, as steeped in the ways of forbidden vices as a trip to Acuña, Bossier City, Juárez, or New Orleans. But Hot Springs’ days as a wild town ended in 1964, when a statewide referendum shut down casino gambling once and for all, taking much of the city’s glamour with it. The bathhouses had already lost a lot of their appeal because cures had been discovered for polio, gout, and other ailments the waters were thought to heal. Although the eight palatial buildings of Bathhouse Row, the centerpiece of Hot Springs National Park, are still standing, only one operates as a bath. And many downtown retail businesses and hotels moved south toward Lake Hamilton when a mall opened nearby a few years ago.
The untrained eye may dismiss Hot Springs. After all, time and trends have passed her by. But closer inspection reveals a place with a charm of its own. What remains is an unlikely family resort in the hills, replete with roadside attractions, rock shops galore, and a trained-animal exhibit. Well-preserved yet tawdry two- and three-story Victorian storefronts line one side of Central Avenue, and directly across the street are the grand water temples in the national park. The best part is that all of this is less than two hours beyond the state line by car—Hot Springs is practically a suburb of Texarkana. Air Midwest flies direct to the city (twice daily from Dallas’ Love Field, about $130 round trip), and American, Southwest, and Delta connect major Texas cities to Little Rock, 52 miles away (limo service available).
If you arrive during any of the 62 days of the Oaklawn meeting, you’ll glean from places like the Arlington Hotel’s Tack Room and the Surf ‘N’ Turf that horses rule the town. Pulling in more than a million visitors annually, Oaklawn is Arkansas’ biggest tourist attraction. The intensity of ten football weekends, combined with the chance of striking it rich, is packed into every day of the meet (no racing on Sundays). By the time the final week rolls around with the Racing Festival of the South (April 12-19), which climaxes this year with the fiftieth running of the $500,000 Arkansas Derby, it is as if Mardi Gras moved north and 1964 never happened.
Lodging in Hot Springs runs the gamut from sleek state-of-the-art hotels on the lake (the Holiday Inn, the Sheraton, the Sun Bay, and the South Shores) to affordable, comfortable, funky little motels with a gimmick (Hot Springs is the motor court capital of the Deep South), like the Tower on Park Avenue, where guests get a free tour of the historical home next door. But the downtown resorts that reek with memories of bygone days are the essence of Hot Springs. The two most distinctive places to stay are the Arlington, a twin-towered landmark at the end of Bathhouse Row, and the Majestic, a block away. Each is a full-service resort with its own bathhouse, restaurants, lounges, shops, and bars. The Arlington (Central and Fountain Avenues, 800-643-1502; double rooms $45 and up) is the grandest, with neatly appointed rooms (request 442, Al Capone’s favorite), a two-level pool, and concessions to changing tastes, such as a spring-fed hot tub and a stunning rococo-kitsch lobby obviously inspired by Zsa Zsa Gabor’s boudoir. Pink walls, flowery plastic-covered furniture, and tropical murals vaguely reminiscent of Rousseau set the tone. The lobby is one of the best people-watching sites (outside the track) by day and by night, when it becomes a nightclub with a combo. Sprawling over three separate buildings and eras, the Majestic (Park and Central Avenues, 800-643-1504; double rooms $35 and up) lacks the monolithic elegance of the Arlington but radiates a friendlier, comfier feeling. Moreover, the Majestic has a soda fountain in its sundry shop, home of the best malts and shakes for miles around. For homey comfort, the Williams House Bed and Breakfast Inn (420 Quapaw, 501-624-4275) is an appealing alternative. Its six antique-studded rooms ($49-$69) are within walking distance of downtown.
Once you’re settled, the best way to get into the swing of things is to buy a copy of the Daily Racing Form ($1.75), the Little Rock and Hot Springs daily papers, and perhaps one of several tout sheets and study the day’s racing lineup. Stroll down to the newsstand at 220 Central, between the Arlington and the Majestic, which is only two doors away from the Pancake Shop. Peruse the charts while enjoying a special of