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Original Issue


Hot Springs used to be downright sinful, but it made a clean break with the past, and now the town and track are thriving




Preposterous as it seems, one of these three signs is actually for real, upon a roadside. Hot Springs, Ark., whose residents used to boast at Jaycee meetings that theirs was ' 'the sin city of the whole world," is so benign and pure now that the only place to get a bet down is at the racetrack, and if you go to the baths to get a massage, that is exactly what you get—a massage.

Sin is up and wagering is down all over America but in the once nefarious, wide-open Valley of the Vapors the fabled Southern Club casino has been turned into a museum, the I.Q. Zoo and the national stone-skipping championship are featured tourist excitements and at classy little Oaklawn Park, where the horses manage to race without benefit of exactas, quinellas, superfectas or any other mutuel monkey business, the fans are arriving in droves and thrusting their money upon management—win, place and show, just like Grandpa used to do.

Last week it was Arkansas Derby time, the biggest occasion of the year in what used to be called the Paris of the Bible Belt. In old casino days the high rollers would Super Chief in from all points of the compass, and in some "muscle games"—head-to-head competitions—$100,000 in dollar bills rested on the felt. Anything went. There was even a rooster tout, the Pickin' Chicken, who for a reward would peck out race selections. By contrast, this Derby week the big winners were strictly legal: Oak-lawn Park and a personable young steak-house mogul named Dan Lasater who is suddenly the leading horse owner in the country.

Oaklawn profits by being the only track within hundreds of miles and because it is the only gambling establishment left in a place that gamblers instinctively swim upstream to reach. Imagine, if you will, how much work Oral Roberts could get in Lourdes if the waters there ran dry. But since 36-year-old Charles Cella took over as president, Oaklawn has more than simply benefited from an overlay; its performance has stood a mixed-up, struggling industry on its ear. Five years ago the track's handle averaged around $716.000 a day but this season it is up 91% to $1,370,000. Last week there were stakes run daily, with the $50,000 Fantasy for 3-year-old fillies on Friday and the $100,000 Derby for 3-year-old colts on Saturday. Every race on that card was longer than a mile, and despite dismal morning showers, a record 28,142 fans turned out with $2.9 million burning through their pockets. Oaklawn has consistently outhandled the high-falutin' tracks, and there were many days during this meeting when its purses exceeded those of every track in the land. Several thousand horses bid for 1,400 stalls. "Oaklawn is harder to get into than Harvard," Cella beamed from his house at the eighth pole.

Across the track Dan Lasater squinted under the bill of his engineer cap into the rising sun. "There's not another track like this," he said. "It's funny how much people will get hung up on little things and forget what's really important. Here they made it so the good horses want to come. Good horses and a nice place and good people to deal with. And the pots are right if you like to run horses. I love to run horses."

It was the morning before the Derby. Lasater was running two horses in the Derby and six other horses in six other races on the card. It is only his third year in racing on a large scale. He won $335,000 in 1971, $758,000 last year and going into last Saturday had earnings for 1973 of about $430,000, which was more than anybody else in the country. He has just turned 30.

People often say that there are no more frontiers in America; certainly there are no more frontiers like the Alleghenies or the Great Divide or a big-money set-to at the Southern Club. But for sure there are still frontiers. Dan Lasater's was hamburgers. At 17, just out of high school in Sharpsville, Ind., he got a job at 60¢ an hour sweeping floors at McDonald's over in Kokomo. Within five years he had his own operation going called the Ponderosa Steak Houses. There are now 265 of these, and the stock listed on the big board sells at $55 a share. Dan Lasater has a nice chunk, although he has "retired" from the operations end to concentrate on Lasater Enterprises, which owns 75 horses, 1,500 head of cattle, four farms, some oil and other things. The oldest of his 50 employees is 43. Everybody calls the boss Dan.

He is a lean man who speaks wryly and gently; he wears his hair shoulder-length, his clothes casual and his money well. He first got into racing with a cagey school buddy named John Fernung, who is an altogether rotund fellow with a beard, mustache and haircut so perfectly shaped and trimmed that he appears absolutely symmetrical. Fernung introduced another young Hoosier, Dave Vance, to Lasater. Vance is the track-smart son of a trainer, a hefty chap who keeps a plug of Beechnut in his cheek at all times. Vance also is one of the few people standing 6'1" and weighing 260 who once was a jockey. He managed that by riding when he was 14; he won 40 races and was the second-leading rider at a meet in Las Vegas.

Lasater has given Vance full rein with his stock, just as he lets Fernung manage much of the rest of the operation. Vance has led in winners at four straight meetings all over the East, and this week the stable heads out to the West Coast to tackle Hollywood Park. Lasater refers to Vance and Fernung as "these boys," as in, "I saw what these boys could do with just a hundred thou, so I thought, if I gave these boys some real money, we could get rolling."

He also calls them "the brains." Predictably, a few people have been rattled by Lasater's determined, rampant success, but Cella offers the prevailing view: "Dan Lasater will someday be the dominant man in racing in this country and it will be the best thing that could happen to the sport."

"Look," Lasater says in his soft, measured way, "I've always liked horses, and I think you can make money out of them. What more can you ask than to make money out of something you have fun at? Now, to be honest with you, I can't think of anything I'd rather do than make money, and if there's one person in the world that likes to win more than me, it's Davey. Don't get mad at me if you're comin' in to race for fun, whistlin' Dixie. If you lead that so-and-so out there against me, he better be able to run."

Lasater's horses in the Derby were Game Lad and Pleasure Castle, with the former being the main reason why the entry was a strong second choice in the 10-horse field, after Shecky Greene. Game Lad, a Bold Lad colt, was in peak form and appeared capable of going the mile and an eighth. Could Shecky Greene? Shecky, who had won all four of his shorter starts this year, is what is known in racing parlance as an "invader," which is a melodramatic way of saying that he took a trip over from Florida. Braulio Baeza had come in from the Big Time to ride him. The third choice in the race was Warbucks, who had raced all season at Oak lawn under Don Combs, the trainer of the 1970 Kentucky Derby winner, Dust Commander. The week before, Warbucks had trounced another highly rated invader, Impecunious, who had won three stakes at 2 and had chased vainly and unluckily after Secretariat this year. Impecunious is owned by Mrs. Janice Fein-berg, whose husband is an executive of the Zayre's discount stores in New England. The colt's trainer, George Handy, is of the opinion that "at this time Secretariat is the greatest horse ever." Handy had brought his colt and Jockey Jorge Velasquez from New York and saw no reason why he could not win any 3-year-old race where Secretariat failed to exercise his franchise.

There are a bunch of pre-Kentucky Derbies all over the country, but this year none seemed to have as much gloss as a Secretariat workout. Certainly, though, the Arkansas Derby has become much more than just another rub-a-dub-dub $100,000 cavalry charge. Cella is a fourth-generation racing entrepreneur, and his family has been associated with Oaklawn since it opened in 1904, but the Derby did not become a big six-figure item until two years ago, after Cella bought the track. He believes in pageantry and participation and that exotic wagering and extended racing dates dilute the best chance of the fan to have ongoing action. He is especially pleased that while Oaklawn has high per capita wagering, 27% of its take is in the show pool; a lot of people are staying alive and winning to make that figure (in contrast, it is 5% in New York).

"This is a privileged business," Cella says, "and you can't be greedy and misuse the privilege. The sharp pencil in the mutuel department is not the answer to racing's problems." Bright paint, barbecues, lovely landscaping, corned beef, fresh oysters, Oaklawn burgers and a one-dollar admission are some of the things Cella offers instead of quinellas. Actually, the matter of admission is somewhat moot since it is an old Arkansas custom for everybody to get a free pass to the racetrack. This tradition goes back to the palmier days when most everything in Hot Springs was illegal and it was wise to give things away to anybody who asked for them over at the state capital in Little Rock.

Oh, that old Hot Springs. The Valley of the Vapors always was a congenial place, neutral ground even for warring Indian tribes, who would partake of the 47 thermal springs (143°, a million gallons a day) between lulls in the fighting. In 1886 the Chicago White Stockings inaugurated the business of spring training here and soon other professionals encamped, providing services that Baptist preachers and law-enforcement officials could not endorse.

In the end the city gave up and started collecting boozing and gambling revenues, though both activities were illegal. Gambling remained pretty much a local industry, though, and only one big-time hood came to stay and he turned respectable. Owney Madden settled down, married the postmaster's daughter and, so the story goes, played golf in a girdle because his stomach had been shot up so many times that his insides might fall out if he strained too much with a long iron.

There is still plenty of golf and fine fishing in Hot Springs, although the appeal of the baths has been declining. After the late Governor Winthrop Rockefeller closed down the casinos for good in 1966, many citizens so feared Hot Springs would turn into a ghost town that they, like Socrates, decided to take a final bath before the poison. But the place turned around quickly. Population has grown, tourism is up almost 50% and industrial jobs have increased fourfold. Bob Wheeler, an ebullient print-shop owner who has been cited as one of the top 25 businessmen in the state and who, by the way, is the national stone-skipping champion, says, "I fought hard to get legalized gambling but if the issue came up again I don't know if I'd go for it. The town is founded on something much more than bets now."

The biggest local operator ended up with the betting concession in Istanbul: any port in a storm. Most of the other businessmen have shifted their investments to mutual funds or lakefront real estate. Even the gambling museum—"the only one in the world"—folded. The Pickin' Chicken passed to his reward. There are a few topless joints with combos endlessly playing things like Sot-in Doll, but topless joints are now as ubiquitous in America as Ponderosa Steak Houses and just about as naughty. "You came too late," said the old fellow in the cooling-off room at The Maurice. "You didn't see Hot Springs."

"Arkansas is 10 years behind the rest of the nation," a native muses affectionately, but in fact everything looks the same there as in Orange County or on Long Island. The hair revolution and the clothes revolution and the topless revolution have claimed the land—the same flared pants and dry looks and nipples, coast to coast. Hot Springs was once a very special little town. Now it is just a very nice little town, but with a very special racetrack.

On the biggest day in Arkansas racing history (the mutuel handle was a record as well as the crowd), the skies lightened about the time that Lasater and his team started winning races. Of the seven they entered they were to win five, each one producing a larger collection of pretty girls in the victory photograph. "We have a lot of friends," Lasater explained. "The pictures make nice wallpaper," said the rotund Fernung. In the infield, past the dogwood, the barbecue pit started cooking up a storm. Cella, more confident than ever, had the message board declare, "Soon the sun's effulgent rays will stream through the thunderheads." Eventually they did. The track remained muddy, but all the riders testified before the big race that it had a good bottom. There were to be no excuses. And the best horse won easily.

Pleasure Castle broke on the lead, Shecky Greene on his flank, and Game Lad, Impecunious and Warbucks were in the next brigade ready to strike. Game Lad, stuck on the outside and acting tight, was not up to it. Warbucks, usually a most amiable beast, was uncommonly rank on the backstretch; his rider, Marty Freed, had to move him much sooner than he had planned. Pleasure Castle gave up as the field reached the quarter pole; Shecky, tiring and slipping a little, now bolted in a soft spot, lost his action and chucked it—4 to 5 and all.

Seconds before, George Handy had grimaced as Impecunious seemed to dally; the trainer also started to pray. He never had trained a $100,000 winner. "Dear Lord," he said, "you get your 10%, too." Well, as it turned out, Charles Cella was not the only one with an Arkansas pipeline to the Almighty. Velasquez, who had the horse running easy on the rail all the way, just clucked to Impecunious, banked off the rail and went by Warbucks as if he were Orphan Annie in blinkers. Even before Velasquez dismounted, Handy called to him, "You like him. You want to take him to Louisville?" Velasquez grinned that he did. The Panamanian jockey then hustled to make the plane back to New York.

He missed the last race at Oaklawn 1973—The Trail's End, a mile and three quarters, won by the last horse on the program at Oaklawn 1973, No. 14, Piropo, owned by D. Lasater, operated by J. Fernung, trained by D. Vance. Secretariat does not have to worry about invaders, but Hollywood does.



Bra-ed, if not bashful, ladies replace the cool chicks of the past. A hen pinch-hits for the rooster that once picked horses for gamblers. But a man with a big stake, Dan Lasater, tensely watches the outcome of the Derby.