HOT SPRINGS — Headed for work, two Oaklawn Park employees aboard Chris Zwahlen’s elevator had to get off on the second floor.

"Oh, no," the man behind her said. "We’re going to be late."

It was 11:02 a.m., two minutes after the racetrack gates opened, and the backseat driver was dead set on commandeering one of the 20 tables in the third-floor nook 10 steps from the elevator. The four codgers who traveled two flights of steps beat the elevator group to the area. Quickly, the first-to-arrive pushed two square tables up against a round one and arranged the chairs so they could have a straight-on view of the eight elevated TVs.

"I"m 71 and it’s not as easy as it was when I was 70," one said.

"I don’t know how many more years I can do this," said one of his cohorts.

As long as they can, they will. They are part of what former Oaklawn announcer Terry Wallace calls the "thundering herd."

"They’ve been doing it since before I came here," Zwahlen said, "and this is my eighth year. The only person they would wait for was ‘Miss Virginia,’ and she was in her 90s."

Another man who admitted to 75, said he had been coming to the races since 1969 and had squatted at the free tables for at least 25 years. He used to sit in the smoking section at the other end of the grandstand, but moved as soon as he learned about the non-smoking section.

By 11:04 a.m., more than a dozen men, each one clutching a Racing Form or some other handicapping tool, occupied chairs.

"We bet our own picks," one man said, "but we all talk about what we’re going to do."

He met his carpool partner at Bryant at 8:30 a.m., and they had breakfast in Hot Springs. The next time, they agreed, they might try the place behind the racetrack.

The group is a snapshot of the tradition that separates Oaklawn from most racetracks. Like Keeneland in Kentucky and only a couple others, Oaklawn is heavy on the social aspect. On sunny Saturdays, when the crowds outdo many cities in the state, people come to watch both the horses and the crowds. Some don’t wager at all; others bet very, very sparingly.

A year ago, there were record crowds in the infield for Oaklawn’s two biggest 3-year-old races, but many of the folks — children in tow — took in the music and the petting zoo and there was virtually no change in the amount wagered in the infield.

Per capita, wagering at Oaklawn pales compared to the numbers at the hard-core racing centers in major cities, but Oaklawn officials are fine with that.

The ambiance helps Oaklawn retain on-track attendance better than most.

In the barber’s chair a week ago, I missed the origin of the conversation between the woman with the clippers and her elderly customer. "Horses," I heard.

Tidying up the few hairs on the man’s head, she said she didn’t know anything about picking ponies, but she liked going to Oaklawn on occasion.

"I take the money I would spend on dinner and a movie," she said. "If I don’t win, that’s OK. It’s entertainment."

The man in the chair mentioned taking his grandchildren to the track.

Uninvited, the haircut-in-waiting said he won $100 one time."If I break even, I did good," he said.

Eavesdropping, I wondered if Oaklawn and the Razorbacks were the only topics that freed up Arkansans to the point that they would join a conversation with complete strangers.

Despite a 70 percent chance of rain on Friday, 15,031 showed up for opening day and I thought about something the CEO of a major racetrack said about the future of Oaklawn. Mingling with horsemen in the grandstand, he proclaimed, "Oaklawn’s dead."

That obituary was uttered almost 20 years ago.


Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.