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They have horses here?

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My name is David K., and I'm a reformed gambler.

It's not that I ever had a real gambling problem, you see, but back during the heady days of my youth, there was nothing I liked better than a trip over to Tunica to the casino, or a jaunt down to Oaklawn to put down some dough on the ponies.

As I've gotten older and accumulated more responsibilities, however, I just can't enjoy gambling anymore. For instance, when I went over last month to check out Oaklawn's flashy new $40 million dollar gaming parlor, which opened to great fanfare in May, all I could think while poking money down the maw of one of their “electronic games of skill” was: “There goes a newspaper I could have bought. There goes a paperback book. There goes a night at the movies. There goes HBO for a month.” Luckily, I stopped before I got to: “There goes a vacation in Pago Pago and a Gulfstream jet,” but you can see my point. 

Like all gambling halls, Oaklawn's new 52,000-square-foot gaming extravaganza is designed to make you forget about pesky stuff like paying the rent. It really is impressive, one reason it's Arkansas Times' readers odds-on favorite place to gamble, including competitors in neighboring states.

Through a lovely set of glass doors, over inlaid marble, up an escalator so long it makes you suspect St. Peter might be waiting at the top, is Oaklawn's state of the art gaming floor. Included are 650 “gaming positions” — seats at video blackjack and poker tables, and the rarely empty stools before those aforementioned “games of skill” (which — for the most part. — take about as much skill to play as deciding whether to get ketchup or mustard on your cheeseburger).

In terms of space, amenities, decor and pretty much any other quality you can name besides the thrill of thinking you might see triple 7's come up, Oaklawn's new space is about a galactic parsec away from the track's previous electronic gaming room, a 37,000-square-foot space that opened under the grandstands in 2003, and which had all the charm of a neon-lit bus station. Players have taken a shine to the new digs. The day we visited, my companion and I had to park maybe two football fields away from the front door. It was genuinely hard to snag a seat at a machine.

From a player's perspective, I couldn't help but think that the games in Oaklawn's new space do seem to be a bit looser than they were in the old digs. Published figures put their total payback at over 94 percent of wagers. Though it might have all been in my head, it did seem to take a good bit longer before I hit my inevitable outcome while gambling, which is to do spectacularly well for awhile, then fall into my patented Broken Wing Death Spiral until I'm flat busted.

The next phase of Oaklawn's gaming expansion, scheduled to open by the time the horses start running in late 2010, will push the bar even further. Plans call for an additional 32,000 feet of floor space, including a buffet, a poker room, 500 more gaming positions, a theater featuring live acts (that part of the equation will be opening in August), and a sit-down restaurant. 

A little light gambling is a great antidote for the summertime blahs, but before you skip over to the bank and withdraw Junior's college fund, be sure to remind yourself of the unwritten truism that lurks behind the etched-glass doors of every casino in the world, from Vegas to Monte Carlo to Hot Springs, Ark. They didn't pay for all that marble and gilt trim by losing, friend.

The electronic gaming wing at Oaklawn is open from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday through Wednesday, and from 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.

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