Hello, Hot Springs: my first trip to this unique running destination
Since my first day of racing live at age 12, I’ve “visited every racetrack in America” on my bucket list, doing my best to check out another track on my list every year. As a fan of champion sprinter Whitmore, I thought Oaklawn Park’s recent Whitmore Day was a great excuse to take a road trip to Hot Springs, Ark. to discover another of our country’s historic racecourses and, at the same time, try some of the best restaurants in the area.
From its past as a destination for gamblers and gangsters to its present as a vacation spot for fans and families, Hot Springs offers both food and fun for everyone.
Home Away From Home
For this weekend, I chose the history Hotel in Arlington located on Central Avenue, just two miles from Oaklawn. Built in 1924, the current Arlington is the third version of the hotel, built for vacationers who flocked to the bathhouses and bustling gambling establishments of Hot Springs in the early 20and Century. The 21st Century Arlington sports a Starbucks and live music space while retaining architectural elements from the Roaring Twenties. My room had a great view of Central Avenue with the backdrop of the Ozarks in the distance. Plus, the hotel is within walking distance of a number of great restaurants and other attractions.
Walking down Central Avenue reminded me of trips to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Both have the same vibe, built for vacationers with old-world charm in mind. The avenue is lined with clothing boutiques, local restaurants, and destinations such as the Gangster Museum and the Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum. Across the avenue were the Quapaw Bathhouse, where you can bathe and get spa treatments, and the Fordyce Bathhouse, which has been turned into a bathhouse museum that draws visitors to Hot Springs for decades.
As I explored, I stopped at Kilwin’s for homemade marshmallows, marveling at the wide selection of chocolates – including slices of fudge – and deep tubs of ice cream, a favorite stop for families who admired the sites along the avenue. . I also noticed the Ohio Club, the oldest bar in the area that was once a speakeasy and hangout for gangsters and is now a restaurant and live music venue. Across the street is the Superior Bathhouse Brewery, the only brewery in a national park and the only brewery in the world that uses hot spring water in its beer. I put both on my list for dinner since they were within walking distance of the Arlington.
Now starved from my drive and stroll down the avenue, I decided it was time to start one of my favorite parts of any vacation: the eating part.
All good food
The day I arrived in Hot Springs happened to be St. Patrick’s Day, which meant the Ohio bar was packed with revelers. I headed for the Superior Bath for dinner instead, ready for some good food and a beer. With a menu that featured beer flights to sample Superior’s house brews and unique culinary offerings, this choice proved to be fortuitous.
Despite the busy evening, I was seated quickly, my view of the bustle of Central Avenue. I started the meal with what I’ll call forever the best salad ever¸ also known as sweet potato salad. This entrée-sized bowl included roasted sweet potatoes, bacon bits, cranberries and pickled red onions on a bed of spinach with a warm bacon dressing. As someone who cooks and eats bacon as often as possible, this was the perfect way to start the meal. I followed that with a Brie-LT, a sandwich with sweet and spicy bacon, tomato jam and spicy mayonnaise layered with brie on a pistola bun. Paired with a flight of four 4 oz. Beers was a great start to my stay in Hot Springs.
The next evening, with the St. Patrick’s Day crowd dispersed, I ventured to the Ohio club For dinner. With live music upstairs, I sat at the bar and scanned their menu, which included burgers and sandwiches, like a Reuben sandwich and the Southwest Grilled Chicken. After a long day in Oaklawn, I enjoyed a sweet tea, this Southern girl’s favorite drink, and this grilled chicken sandwich. Between the big portion of sandwich and steak fries, I was stuffed and ready to go back to the Arlington to relax.
These two evening meals provided me with more than enough energy for my days in Oaklawn, both filled with good times and great races. While the Central Avenue and Hot Springs venues were fantastic, the 118-year-old racetrack was a highly anticipated destination for this weekend.
Fast horses, fun times
Oaklawn Park, now known as Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, has been part of Hot Springs since it opened in 1904. Now owned by the Cella family, the track is the remaining gambling venue in a town that was once known for its illegal casinos as it was for its thermal baths.
The casino and hotel portion of Oaklawn are beautiful modern facilities that complement the historic racetrack attached to it, where names like American Pharoah and Count Fleet won races en route to Triple Crown glory. I was excited to add this to my list of racetracks.
Inside the track are several restaurants and other catering services, including the Finish Line restaurant. Located on the first level, I decided to have lunch there between morning training and the first position.
The fried shrimp platter caught my eye as I had heard that Oaklawn served great seafood despite being hours away from the ocean. The platter was more than enough food for one person and probably could have fed two, with its large fried shrimp, hushpuppies and healthy portion of fries.
Along the same lines, I also had sushi at The Cove the next day. Looking for a change from burgers and sandwiches, I tried the spicy California roll, which was delicious. I was delighted by the nice sized roll drizzled with spicy mayonnaise. Well rolled and a perfect balance of crab and vegetables, this choice was a pleasant surprise. Most racetracks have food choices similar to your trips to a football or baseball game, so the sushi was a great respite from the heavier choices of early meals.
Oaklawn itself is fun to spend a day in, easy to navigate and welcoming to racing fans.
The paddock is indoors, allowing fans to watch the horses as they walk around the ring and are saddled while being sheltered from the day’s weather. On both sides of the paddock and tunnel on the track is the track apron with concrete bleachers which also serve as steps to the grandstand. Virtually any spot on the apron allows fans to see the action on the track.
Glad I was able to make the trip for the weekend special events and can’t wait to get back to the area for another day at Oaklawn style races.
Thank you, hot springs
Hot Springs and Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort are two great choices for a weekend at the races. The town’s unique architecture gives it an old-world feel as you stroll down Central Avenue, gazing at the bathhouses that dot the landscape and soaking up the thermal waters that have drawn people to the area for over a century. Its diverse selection of restaurants also offers visitors the opportunity to refuel before and after a trip to Oaklawn, where they can enjoy a day at the races and then play their favorite game of chance. It’s a win-win proposition for everyone.