The Gardenia Gallop

Some of the world’s top Thoroughbreds race at Oaklawn Park.
Cassandra M. Vanhooser

In Hot Springs, many residents and their guests see Arkansas Derby Day as an opportunity to get gussied up and throw a party.

"My favorite part is getting to see the people," says Julann Cather. "I love all the pretty hats." With that, she touches the rim of her own chapeau, a froth of gold festooned with feathers. "I always said if it isn't bright and gaudy, I don't want it," she teases.

The First Step to Glory
Located about an hour southwest of Little Rock, Oaklawn Park features an action-packed 54-day racing schedule that begins in January. But the Arkansas Derby remains the premier race at the dirt oval.

Although it's only one of many prep races for the famous Kentucky Derby, anyone who's truly interested in horse racing keeps an eye on Oaklawn. Thanks to a $1-million purse, this stakes race attracts some of the best 3-year-old Thoroughbreds in the world. A number of recent Triple Crown race winners, including Afleet Alex and Smarty Jones, won here.

For true racing enthusiasts, this is a preview of what's going to happen as the quest for the Triple Crown heats up. For the rest, it's purely entertainment.

Oh Happy Day
Today, the soft, sweet green that signals spring spreads across the hillsides around town. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the weatherman. An unseasonable cold snap sends race fans huddling in their jackets but fails to dampen their enthusiasm.

At the end of this day, the happiest man at the track is Steve Asmussen. As his winning chestnut colt wears a blanket of white gardenias (an Arkansas Derby tradition), Steve and his family accept their trophy in the Winner's Circle. Not only did his horse win by a record 10 ½ lengths, but the Texas-based trainer also came out on top in four other races.

You might remember Asmussen's horse. Curlin went on to win both the Preakness and the Breeders' Cup. At the end of 2007, he was named Horse of the Year. •


"The Gardenia Gallop" is from the April 2008 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.