Talented Arkansas musician Bonnie Montgomery (above) in a file photo. On Friday night after the Apple Blossom Handicap, she played at Maxine's in Hot Springs, Ark.
“Race Tracks are like people; they all have their own personalities. You get along with some, you don't get along with others.”—How to Win at the Oaklawn Park
My mother met a man at the bar of the Arlington Hotel in downtown Hot Springs, Ark., one night in the spring of 1990. He wore a fedora, drank his whiskey neat, and was loudly boasting about how much money he won that day at the racetrack. My mother wasn't buying it, so he handed her a book – How to Win at the Oaklawn Park.
"I wrote this." he said. He turned it over and showed her his picture on the back cover. It was him all right. Under his fedora'd headshot was his nom de plume, “The Legend.”
My mother came home and gave me her copy of How to Win at the Oaklawn Park and I read it cover to cover the next day in eighth grade English. The book was filled with what I now know is pseudo-handicapping garbage. But what was more interesting to me were the book's tales of a posse of gamblers from around the country who congregated at the Oaklawn Park's eighth pole every weekend. They had names like Longshot Dave, the Bush Man, Rodeo Pat, Pick6, Coach, Sandy Red and, of course, their dear leader The Legend.
I started hanging around the eighth-pole gang every weekend. They came from places like Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. They followed the race meet from city to city. These were the days before simulcasting. If you wanted to bet Oaklawn, you needed to be at Oaklawn. And here they all were. They had wads and wads of money but sat on the concrete steps on the apron by the eighth pole with the ticket stoopers and the flat-busted. “The better to holler at the jockeys,” The Legend once told me. And holler he did. I once saw him bet Garrett Gomez a bottle of Jack Daniels that he wouldn't win a race during the post parade. Garrett won, and he rode down the stretch to the eighth pole after the race to make sure The Legend knew he expected him to pay up. “See you at the Arlington, amigo!”
Today is a Friday afternoon, and it's a little chilly, but that's not why the eighth-pole gang isn't hanging out on the concrete steps today. The Legend and his crew are long gone. Since simulcasting and internet wagering took off, gamblers like him didn't need to spend time on the road anymore. He could play Oaklawn from his sofa - and keep all the whiskey to himself.
Simulcasting dried up the traveling horseplayers, but it has had little to no effect on attendance here at the Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs. Routinely one of the highest attendance and on-track handles of any racetrack in America, Oaklawn’s numbers have actually improved in recent years with the addition of slots, blackjack, roulette and poker. The crowd here on this Friday may lack legends, but there’s plenty of race fans ready for the next race - the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap.
ENTHUSIATIC CROWD FOR ARKANSAS DERBY WEEKEND
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
I had wandered down to the eighth pole hoping to get some advice from any sentimental stragglers from the old gang who might have been in town for the big weekend. Tomorrow was the Arkansas Derby, the last day of the meet and the marquee event of the season. In the old days, the Derby was a giant party on the eighth pole. Guys from The Jockey Club would even come down before the big race so they could join The Legend as he led the crowd in singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” during the post parade. But today none of the old gang was around to give me advice.
Specifically, I was trying to figure out what to do with my Pick 4 ticket. I had thought about singling Grace Hall, the favorite in the Apple Blossom — the feature race of the day and a $500,000 race for older fillies and mares. She was going to be even-money or worse, though. She had one hell of a record, including a fourth in the Breeder's Cup Ladies’ Classic. Something didn't sit well with me about it, though. Perhaps it was sentimentality. On Fire Baby, a Kentucky homebred trained by local favorite Gary Hartlage, was also entered in the race. This was a horse that a year ago was supposed to run in the Arkansas Derby against the boys after she came here and cleaned up the 3-year old fillies. But she hadn't raced since last year's Acorn Stakes in New York, a layoff of almost a year. What did Longshot Dave think? Was she a live longshot at 12-1? I'd never know. He wasn't around.
I went to where my mom and her friends were sitting in the grandstand for advice from some decidedly non-serious horseplayers. Already my mom had chased three tickets betting on horses named after various cousins. She was in the process of calculating which post positions had won already, trying to find “a ghost” - a number that had won three or more times in a day.
“Who are y'all betting in the Apple Blossom, ma?” I couldn't believe I had stooped to this.
"Red Dog!" she enthusiastically cheered. Her friends all concurred by raising their beers reverently and repeating: “Red Dog!”
Red Dog is what the locals call Gary Hartlage. A native of Kentucky, Oaklawn considers him one of their own. His box seats are always occupied by various local dignitaries and surrounded by friends and fans. He is known to hold court in local bars. His family is back in Louisville, but he has no shortage of friends in Hot Springs. When Red Dog brings a horse from Kentucky to race in the feature, the locals will back him. Some locals, anyway. The odds on On Fire Baby were still 12-1. Perhaps everyone was lying about betting On Fire Baby, lest word get back to Red Dog’s box. It mattered not to me. I live to beat the chalk. I threw her in my Pick 4 and settled in to my seat.
Long story short, On Fire Baby wired the field and left even-money favorite Grace Hall eating dirt back in seventh place. Hartlage won his first ever Grade 1 race right here in Hot Springs, his home away from home. On Fire Baby earned a 101 Beyer Speed Figure, her highest ever. I won a $480 fifty-cent Pick 4. It was time to celebrate.
ON FIRE BABY WINNING APPLE BLOSSOM
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
"Where's the party tonight?" I asked my mom. I know how sad that sentence sounds, but my mom isn’t like your mom. My mom is Party Pam. She's a 60-year-old party planner and local social butterfly. She's been drinking them under the table since well before The Legend at the Arlington, and she still always seems to be wherever the action is at - if by action you mean cheap booze and honky tonk music.
“I betcha Red Dog and them go to The Chill.”
The Chill was The Big Chill, a local bar a couple miles from the track. It wasn't one of the three claptrap bars that sat directly across the street from the entrance to Oaklawn. Those bars were where people went to get drunk and forget about how much money they lost. The Big Chill was a real scene. It was two floors and three separate bars. The musicians who hung at The Chill were royalty. They celebrated live music and the musicians celebrated each other. The crowd on any given night wasn’t easily pigeonholed. There were young and old, men and women, shirt-and-tie city folk and rattlesnake-band-Stetson rednecks. If you loved pickin’ and grinnin’ and drinkin’ beer, then you were welcomed at The Big Chill.
GREAT MUSIC, GREAT ATMOSPHERE AT THE BIG CHILL
By the time I got there, it was packed with people already drunk from a day of drinking at the races. The band was going back and forth between country songs and 80s covers. The crowd didn't seem to care.
A few minutes after I arrived, they played a Bon Jovi cover and some young girl got so excited she passed out on the dance floor. They carried her outside to revive her and I went to check to see if she was okay. Just as she came to, one of those limousine buses pulled up. Pouring out of it came Anita and Jim Cauley, owners-breeders of On Fire Baby, clutching their Apple Blossom trophy. After the Cauleys came jockey Joe Johnson and Red Dog himself. The crowd cheered for them and lined up to shake hands and pat them on the back as they filed into the bar. Anita Cauley, about as tall in heels as Joe Johnson flat-footed, dragged Joe out on the dance floor to do some two-stepping as Jim and company grabbed drinks.
Jim Cauley's business isn’t horses. He married into it. Anita had been breeding and racing since before her late husband's death. Jim’s business was politics. He had once worked on Barack Obama's state senate campaign in Illinois. He managed Steve Beshear's remarkable rise to the Governor's seat in Kentucky. Since that race, he had served as Governor Beshear's chief of staff. I tried to chat him up about Kentucky politics. He sat at the bar with a glass in one hand and the trophy clutched in the other watching his wife dance with their jockey.
“I love to talk politics, but let's do it tomorrow.”
Just like in politics, after you win a race you celebrate.
JOE JOHNSON AND ANITA CAULEY INTERVIEWED BY ZOE CADMAN
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
As much fun as it was to watch On Fire Baby's entourage get wasted with redneck royalty, in the end I had to admit that The Big Chill just wasn't my scene. I bid my mom adieu and headed downtown to a bar called Maxine's.
Maxine's is named for a woman named Maxine Jones who owned the building through the 1950s and 60s. She was one of the most powerful people in Hot Springs during a time when Hot Springs was run by murderous gangsters and corrupt politicians. She was easily the most powerful woman in a town controlled by a tight-knit group of powerful men. It wasn’t because her husband, Edward Jones, was a gangster. By the time she hooked up with him she was already raking in $5,000 a day and holding court with the mayor. No, Maxine was the town madam. Once a working girl, Maxine squirrelled away enough money to buy the brothel she worked in and moved in to the hotel on the corner of Prospect and Central. It was prime real estate in the old days when downtown Hot Springs was lit up like the Atlantic City boardwalk with midways and casinos. It's prime real estate today, even though Central Ave. is now a long line of gift shops and empty storefronts.
When I was a kid, Maxine's wasn't a bar. It was a coffee house, and one that didn't welcome young people. Old folks would sit in the old lobby of the whorehouse and drink coffee and work on puzzles, the proprietor an old man who literally chased teenagers away from his doorstep with a broom.
Tonight Maxine's is lit up in bright red neon. On the curb right outside sits an old hot-rod kit car with skulls and cobwebs on it. The driver of the car, a young man with tattoos and an enormous spiked mohawk, gets out of the car and struts inside like a regular.
While hot-rod mohawk would probably be welcomed at The Big Chill with open arms, he'd certainly stick out like a sore thumb. In Maxine's, however, he's right at home. The bar is filled with tattooed hipsters. Some are dressed in jeans and T-shirts with punk bands on them. Others are dressed to the nines in fancy vintage dresses and colorful linen suits. Everybody is stylish in one way or another, which is fitting in a bar festooned with vintage and plush ornamentation. The vibe is decidedly loungish.
On the stage is Bonnie Montgomery, an Arkansas native who made good in Nashville as a singer-songwriter and then wrote an opera about Bill Clinton that made a bit of a splash in New York City. Tonight, she's on stage with a small band - an upright bass, a steel guitar, and a big bespectacled man with a Gibson that looks so beautiful I'm not convinced it isn't a movie prop.
Bonnie is in a flowery dress and cowboy boots, and she's singing haunting songs about getting revenge against abusive boyfriends and meeting the devil at the crossroads. The patrons sit at tables and tap their feet. Only a few dance off to the side of the stage. It isn't The Big Chill, not by a million miles. But in its own way, Maxine's is as indicative of the spirit of Hot Springs as The Chill. When I was a teenager, there weren't very many young people who lived in this town. Just teenagers and old folks. Everyone who could get out when they turned 18 did just that, and they didn't look back.
Today, not only do people stay put, they move here from other cities. The art scene downtown has embraced and supported young artists, musicians and writers. A creative community of young people has steadily grown here over the last 10 years and continues to get bigger. Bands from all over the world come through Hot Springs and play at places like Maxine's. Country music wasn't just for cowboys anymore, and Hot Springs wasn't just for old folks.
“Anybody win any money at the races today?” Bonnie asks the crowd.
Only a few people cheered. This, to me, is the real difference in Maxine's and The Big Chill. These kids all had Grace Hall. Nobody tipped them to Red Dog's shipper.
ARKANSAS DERBY INFIELD
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
Derby Day at Oaklawn is like a state holiday. The governor was in attendance. Out-of-town family was showing up and tossing blankets on the grass on the infield for babies to roll around on. Girls got their hair done special, put on that brand-new dress. Boys tied their bow ties in the mirrors, asked their moms if you're supposed to iron seersucker. Groups posed for pictures in front of the statue of Bodemeister. Well, the statue painted with Bodemeister’s silks and number anyway. By the end of today we'd have a new Arkansas Derby winner, and it'd be painted with brand new colors.
STATUE WITH BODEMEISTER'S SILKS
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
The attendance at Derby Day this year topped 66,000 people. That’s like Arkansas Razorbacks’ football numbers. It wasn't even a top-10 day for Oaklawn, though. This event has drawn huge crowds over the years. Perhaps it was the economy that kept this year's Derby from breaking 70,000. Hard to say. Keeneland had over 37,000 in attendance today for the Blue Grass Stakes. It was their second-highest attendance of all time. Nobody at Oaklawn could tell the attendance was down. It felt packed. From the press box the roar of the crowd when the horses came down the stretch was as loud as a hundred thousand.
They had come for the pomp and circumstance of the racing meet’s crown jewel - the Arkansas Derby. They came to get dressed up, to see some world-class animals and athletes, to maybe win a few bucks, to commune with friends and family. What they maybe didn't bargain for was they were also going to get to see the reigning Breeder's Cup Classic winner, Fort Larned, kick off (or at least get a do-over) his 5-year-old season in the Oaklawn Handicap.
Standing up against the rail for the Oaklawn Handicap post parade, you wouldn't guess that the fans on the apron knew Fort Larned from Fort Smith. Sure, he was the heavy favorite on the tote board, but the folks hollering at the horses in the post parade seemed much more excited about local favorite Win Willy. At the ripe old age of 7, Win Willy seemed like he was entered in this race every year. In 2011, he actually won it. In 2009, he won the Rebel Stakes at 56-1 odds. He had raced at Oaklawn 13 times and got his picture taken in the winner's circle five. People were wearing Win Willy buttons and little kids on their parents’ shoulders called out his name. Oaklawn fans are nothing if not sentimental.
The horse the locals should have been putting their home-team money on, however, was in the one hole. Cyber Secret was owned by none other than Charles Cella, the owner of the racetrack. Unlike most American racetracks, Oaklawn Park is still family owned. The Cella family has owned the track for a century and has yet to sell out to Harrah's or Magna or any of the other corporate conglomerates. Cella still keeps a home right there next to the grandstand at the top of the stretch. From time to time you can catch him walking from the house into the track through a little gate at the eighth pole. I had written about Cyber Secret last year when he ran in the Southwest Stakes and lost to eventual Rebel Stakes winner Secret Circle. Since that effort, Cyber Secret had racked up a few decent wins and was looking pretty sharp this year. He was no Fort Larned, but his odds were long. I beat the chalk on Friday in the Apple Blossom, I could do it again on Derby Day. I backed up Fort Larned on my Pick 4 tickets with Cyber Secret. And wouldn't you know it, the boss man’s horse won the damn thing. Fort Larned didn't even hit the board.
I made it through one more race to the Arkansas Derby alive in the Pick 4 to the two favorites: Oxbow and War Academy. Both of them paid about a thousand bucks. I decided not to hedge my bet and just let it ride. The anxiety was killing me, though, so I exited the press box and went to sit with Party Pam and the cousins down in the mezzanine seats.
I told everyone I was sweating two horses on a big Pick 4. My mom hadn't decided who to bet on yet. She certainly wasn't going to bet on my horses. She made a big deal out of betting on Frac Daddy. I got irrationally angry. I told her it didn't make sense that she was more worried about winning or losing $10 when I was sweating a grand. But mom's not really a gambler. That was dad's thing. He would have put his money with mine and sweated it with me. Hell, he'd have probably been in for half my ticket. Mom just wanted to hoot and holler when they came down the stretch then stand in line with the other winners after the race to cash her tickets. It mattered not if she won or lost, since she only stood to win or lose 50 or 60 bucks at the end of the day. She'd spend more than that on beer. This is how most folks at the racetrack play.
Looking around me in the mezzanine, I understood the appeal. Nobody else seemed to be slumped in their seat biting their fingernails. Nobody else was watching the “one minute to post” timer with the worried look of a dope-sick junkie. In fact, most people seemed pretty happy. They whooped every time the announcer said the horses were nearing the starting gate. They randomly shouted the names of various horses. They high- fived and slapped their programs against their legs. The Mariachi band was blaring and people were toasting them and showering them with tips. (A sign of the times. In the old days, a brass Dixieland jazz band in red-and-white-striped jackets used to circulate through the crowd and play). There was something to this, playing the horses for beer money. Maybe if I ever took up drinking beer I'd have been less of a gambler.
The horses broke and the 66,000 whooped as loud as they had all day.
ARKANSAS DERBY DAY CROWD
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
I felt strangely calm, confident. A stillness set in. I was going to win this bet, I realized. I was sure of it.
Around the end of the backstretch as the horses entered the final turn, War Academy dropped back sharply, pulled up by his jockey. I covered my eyes with my hands.
“Did you have that horse?” my mom asked.
“Of course I did!”
The crowd gasped. I wasn't the only person with money on Baffert's horse. He was the odds-on favorite.
The race continued, and Oxbow looked like he was making his move. From where we sat we had a head-on view of the stretch run. I saw a horse move to the outside and start charging in the stretch. The outside move on the last turn has always been a good move at Oaklawn, as long as I can remember and all day long today. I knew whoever that horse was that came flying on the outside was bound to win the race. I just had no idea who he was.
“Is it the 10?” I asked anybody within earshot. “Is it the 10?”
The more I asked and received no answer, the surer I got that it must have been. That's how your brain works in the moment of the stretch run. It disconnects from your eyeballs and starts imagining what it wants to see. It convinces you that 8s are 3s, or that pink is purple, or that a gray horse is actually brown. I remember sweating a huge Pick 4 in the Mirage sportsbook during the 2006 Belmont Stakes and convincing myself that Jazil was falling back in the stretch instead of barrelling forward ahead of the field. After the race, I almost tore up my ticket in disgust. The people around me who all knew I had Jazil in the final leg couldn't understand why I was cursing and clutching at my hair. “You won, you idiot.”
There's just something about those seconds during the stretch run that are so crazy, so filled with adrenaline and excitement, that the experience is plain bewilderment.
I had fooled myself alright. Oxbow wasn't on the outside. It was Overanalyze, the beaten favorite in last month's Gotham Stakes. I looked down at my Racing Form. There were notes scrawled all over the pages, in the margins, numbers circled and races underlined. On Overanalyze's entry I had drawn a big black “X” through his past performances. I dropped the form on the ground and joined the grandstand in applauding our new champion.
“Who was that?” Party Pam asked.
“The most aptly named Derby winner I've ever seen.”
The final race on Derby day every year is a mile and three-quarters. It's two laps around the track and it feels like it takes a half-hour to finish. They call it the Trail's End, and the horses all face the stands during the post parade as a kind of curtsey or bow. It's a tradition, sure, but it's often also the “get even” race for people who didn't hit the Derby and haven't yet retired to the grungy bars across the street.
When the gates opened up for the Trail's End, every horse bolted out except one: a longshot in the nine hole named Tapativity. The announcer came over the loudspeaker to say that the gate didn't malfunction, Tapativity just decided not to break.
“I bet that jockey told him it was a mile and three quarters and he said ‘Hell no!’ ” my mom joked.
Maybe. Or maybe he just wasn't ready for the meet to end.
“Take a drink, and take a strong one,” Bonnie Montgomery croons. “Press your back, and watch the clouds pass. You can rest, your work is through.”