Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs was in the middle of its 117th thoroughbred racing season when the pandemic took hold last March. Oaklawn carried on, but with no fans in attendance the last two months of the season, it limped across the finish line.
The abrupt halt that resulted from COVID-19 hit Oaklawn as hard as any entertainment venue. But the 2021 season is scheduled to begin on Jan. 22 coinciding with the planned first quarter opening of Oaklawn’s multi-purpose events center and luxury hotel overlooking the track. While the launch of Oaklawn’s $100 million expansion may be muted somewhat by a lingering pandemic, Oaklawn President Louis Cella is optimistic that the bounce back — whenever it comes — will be worth the wait.
Cella shared with Arkansas Money & Politics his pride in how Oaklawn employees are handling the challenges of COVID-19, the impact on expansion, the financial hit to Oaklawn coffers and more.
AMP: What are your plans regarding attendance in 2021?
Cella: We have submitted a plan to the Department of Health. Depending on approval or changes they make, we hope to open with box seat holders, club members and reservations-only in restaurants.No general admission. This way, we can properly social distance everyone. Box-seat holders will be spread out across reserved seats which make up the entire grandstand. When weather improves, we hope to permit limited general admission outside. We will provide tents, but that likely won’t happen until March. This is a fluid situation, and we really are praying for vaccines to be widely spread!
AMP: Tell us about the challenges of adjusting on a dime when the pandemic hit last spring.
CELLA: We were one of the first businesses to recognize the urgency of the situation. We were all dealing with the uncertainty and the unknown. When we learned of a patron having direct exposure and testing positive for COVID while attending the races, the seriousness of this pandemic rang true. Ceasing operations, although financially terrible, was the responsible thing to do. There was no playbook. We really were making it up and calling audibles on the fly.
AMP: What were the most daunting challenges you faced?
Cella: For almost two months, we raced without fans. We were the first sports franchise in America to have to work through the logistics of that. Now, virtually all sports franchises are doing it. And quite a few professional teams, and not just within the horse racing industry, have since called and asked for our playbook. We had responsibility for 1,500 of the finest and most expensive horses in America, approximately 1,000 people who are involved with the care and maintenance of those horses, and 1,000 of our own employees.
It was a massive undertaking for the better part of two months, and we did it without a single negative incident. I’ve never been more proud of our organization and our staff than I was with how we performed during that period of time.
AMP: How has the pandemic impacted progress on the expansion, and how’s the expansion going?
CELLA: It’s made it much more difficult with all the daily safety precautions and the major backlog on materials and supplies. Items from overseas are delayed; items from within the U.S. are delayed; shipping, trucking and rail are delayed. But we are making progress and are excited to be planning a grand opening hopefully by the end of the first quarter of 2021.
AMP: How have casino patrons adjusted to the COVID protocols now in place?
CELLA: By and large, the vast majority share our dedication to safety. By now, they understand Oaklawn is absolutely and positively going to have a safe environment. In fact, several patrons comment that Oaklawn is the safest place to go in Arkansas.
Because we took our employees’ and fans’ health and safety so seriously from the beginning, there is an expectation that we offer a safe environment. That means temperature checks on everyone, IDs, banding, no-exception masking, no congregating and everything else, including spraying disinfectant throughout the facility every day. We offer touchless payments, and we voluntarily close our food and beverage earlier than mandated because we don’t want people to let their guards down.
The handful of patrons who did not share our dedication to safety simply had to go elsewhere. We take the responsibility of being a good corporate citizen quite seriously. This is our community, and we are not going to let it go backwards during this pandemic.
AMP: What kind of financial hit has Oaklawn taken due to the pandemic?
CELLA: It’s just about the worst-case scenario. First, your expenses shoot up. Then, you either have no customers or a restricted number of customers. And you’re in the middle of a $100 million expansion project. Add to that our commitment of investing money back into racing, improving our grandstand, improving our backstretch before horses return. Putting this all together, it is daunting, and it will keep you up at night.
AMP: One could argue that the products and services you offer have increased in value because of the limited access. Do you anticipate a flood of customers once things are fully reopened?
CELLA: We are building Arkansas’ first world-class racing, gaming and resort facility that will be attractive to people throughout all of middle America. The vaccines are coming. America and Arkansas will get back to normal. And when that happens, Oaklawn will be ready to help take Arkansas hospitality and tourism to an even higher level of excellence. Yes, when we eventually open back up, we have a wonderful surprise for our fans, and we think they will be amazed and enthusiastically embrace it.
AMP: Has the pandemic forced you to change or alter any long-term plans?
CELLA: No. Representing the fourth generation of managing one of the oldest businesses in Arkansas, we’ve come through plenty of challenges before. World wars, the Great Depression, natural disasters, even the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918. We have seen difficult times before. Like Arkansas and America, we are resilient, and we will come through this better and stronger than ever. We owe it to ourselves to require that.