Arkansas dice are out: I went gambling at the state's three operating casinos and didn't lose. Much. - Arkansas Times

2022-04-25 07:31:08 By : Ms. Emma Liao

For me, casino gaming is all about timing. If I walk up to the craps table and everyone looks sad and dejected, I just saunter away full of false self-confidence, pretending my hair is blowing in the casino oxygen. If the people at the table look like they’re in a Saracen Casino commercial, laughing and high-fiving, I boldly enter. Unfortunately, most of the time, there’s no way of knowing when the timing is going to be right until it is.

In 2018, voters approved a constitutional amendment authorizing four casinos to operate in Crittenden, Garland, Jefferson and Pope counties, forever changing the gaming landscape in Arkansas. That made the timing right for the state’s two racing/game of skill “racinos,” Oaklawn and Southland, to make huge bets on themselves. They announced multimillion dollar expansions, including live table games (to add to existing digital equivalents) and sports books, new restaurants, hotels and event centers. In 2019, the Oklahoma-based Quapaw Nation opened the Saracen Casino Annex, then followed with Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff in October 2020.

Pandemic numbers are looking less gloomy at the moment, and the time feels right to strap on a mask and take a little in-state casino road trip. Let’s face it, after the past two years the odds still aren’t in my favor, but the timing has to be right. Right?

Rooms with a trackside view

Formerly known as Oaklawn Park Racetrack, Oaklawn is locally famous as the historic thoroughbred racetrack in Hot Springs with opening day 50-cent corned beef sandwiches bigger than your face. And that it remains. But in early 2019, Oaklawn embarked on a $100 million expansion that includes a 200-room luxury hotel, a spa, an event center, two new restaurants and a food court.

My first impression pulling up on Central Avenue is that Oaklawn’s parking lot is bigger than it once was, and the hotel neatly blends into the facility. If I didn’t know any better I would assume it’s always been there.

Taking a break from winning.

I check into my room on the seventh floor, equipped with its own iPad for room service/guest information. Behind a 65-ish-inch flatscreen is a large panoramic painting of racehorse legs spraying dirt toward the viewer, a crowd of blurry onlookers in the background watching the race from the infield.

The room is modern and luxurious by my journalist-salaried standards, but what sets it apart from any other hotel room I’ve ever stayed in awaits just beyond the curtains. Opening them reveals an incredible view of the fabled, meticulously groomed thoroughbred racetrack. The windows do not open, but if they did I probably could fly a paper airplane made from Oaklawn stationery right onto the track.

Night views from the room.

Less than a year old, Oaklawn’s fine dining establishment The Bugler is located just outside the casino and the new food court. Headed up by James Beard Award-winning executive chef Ken Bredeson, the restaurant announces itself with the statue of a bugle player blowing imaginary musical notes from the hallway right into the restaurant entrance. A row of tables runs parallel to the racetrack inside and on a patio. Pro tip: Reserve a table at sunset. Adorned with chic modern lighting and sleek restaurant booths, The Bugler feels both upscale and casual and doesn’t take itself too seriously. A large cartoon-style painting of a horse jockey thinking about a massive Thanksgiving spread is visible from about anywhere in the restaurant.

The Bugler offers fine dining with trackside viewing.

Highlights from the meal include crab cakes served on top of a sweet corn relish and my girlfriend’s steak being preceded by a knife case presentation in a sort of choose-your-own-steak-knife adventure. The baked hot chocolate dessert was outrageously decadent: Ouachita chocolate cake in the bottom of a coffee cup, topped with piping hot marshmallow fluff that’s bruleed. The texture is surreal as the fluff molds back into its previous shape after a spoonful is taken, making your bite disappear like it never happened.

Shrimp and grits from The Bugler.

The most brilliant thing about Oaklawn’s casino is that it’s nonsmoking, which sets it apart from every casino I’ve ever been to, giving it a much cleaner feel. Standing amongst other players at the craps table, I feel too full of marshmallow fluff to gamble. I should’ve known my timing was all wrong. I play the safest bet in the house, the pass line with odds, but everyone craps out almost instantly. Down $100 after just 20 minutes, I retreat to the room.

The nighttime view of the track from the room might be what I remember most. A large horseshoe planter on the lawn lights up with LEDs, as does an adjacent floating fountain spraying water highlighted with neon colors. I turn off every light in the room, device screens included, and quietly take in the view with a $14 room service cocktail. Highly recommend it.

Morning comes suddenly. Slightly hung over and confused about my location on earth, I open the curtains and am practically blown backward by the combination of sunlight and the herd of majestic horses galloping down the track! A $14 carafe of coffee delivered to the room as I watch the superlative creatures run warm-up laps on expertly manicured dirt? When you’re at Oaklawn, of course.

A horse runs warm-up laps on a Thursday morning at Oaklawn.

Tally: $100 lost on the craps table. $80 won on the Super Bowl from a Saracen bet just before mobile gaming was legalized: depleted at the craps table. Down $20.

A new era of gambling in West Memphis

Just west of the Mississippi River from Memphis, Southland began as a greyhound racetrack in the 1950s. In 2019 it announced both a $250 million expansion and the end of greyhound racing, a victory for animal rights advocates and dog lovers who find the practice to be cruel and inhumane. The last greyhound race at Southland is scheduled for Dec. 31. According to greyhound protection organization GREY2KUSA, after the year’s end, West Virginia will have the last two active racetracks in the country.

Southland is building a blue glass, 300-room high-rise hotel. It’s still under construction, but the frame is up and you can’t miss it from Interstate 40. A new casino complex, which looks near completion, is scheduled to open this spring. Combined with the current gaming floor, it will total 113,000 square feet, with about 2,400 slot machines and 60 table games.

PLACE YOUR BETS: Southland’s new casino addition is expected this spring, with the hotel to be completed later this year.

I arrive on a Wednesday around noon and am thrilled that Southland has also gone nonsmoking. I walk the floor, which is dark and like most casinos feels like a gaming tomb devoid of time. It feels pretty lively for a Wednesday afternoon. I imagine weekend nights are slammed. A big crowd is eating lunch in the sports bar. A dated cartoon painting of happy dogs that look like they’re racing in their sleep hints that you’re close to the track with the caption, “Any closer and you’d need a muzzle.”

I check out the new “Roll to Win” craps table, a millennial spin on the classic game, now played on an interactive surface that feels like plastic and illuminates the craps graphics with flames skirting the edges. Between rolls, the table takes on a “Tron’’ appearance, turning all black with cyan grid lines. Bets are made on iPad stations, so there are no chips. The stick person who slides the dice to the roller is the lone dealer. The table’s minimum bet is $5, perfect for a fledgling journalist. This Gen-Z version of the game likely cuts down on labor costs for the casino while adding another table and maybe enticing a new era of bettors. Also, there is no chance of dealer error. I put $50 in the machine and after a few short rolls around the table, I’m down to $10. The dice slide over to me and I go on a long roll, winning several points. No one at the table can believe it. “He’s rolling!” I hear a guy say. I’ve never felt cooler in West Memphis. I get up to $73, cash out, and eat an excellent Reuben from the sports bar.

Driving home I consider making a bet on the Razorbacks’ first-round NCAA Tournament game versus Vermont. Mobile sports betting was legalized in Arkansas in early March, meaning sports bets can be made from anywhere inside the state lines. But none of the three casinos had apps running yet (that may have changed at the point you’re reading this, as all were working furiously to get them live).

Tally: After the Super Bowl bet and putting $150 down on craps tables at Oaklawn and Southland, I’m up $3. I drive home feeling rich.

Steaks are higher in Pine Bluff

Saracen’s $300 million casino opened in October of 2020. The hotel is still in development, but you can see the framing of the first couple of floors of the future 13-story hotel tower housing about 320 rooms, an additional restaurant and a coffee shop.

The drive to Saracen is an easy, smooth 45 minutes from Little Rock. My friend and I arrive for a 6 p.m. reservation at Saracen’s flagship restaurant, Red Oak Steakhouse, tucked away at the back of the casino. The last row of slot machines offers views into the kitchen, their neon reflections shimmering among chefs cooking over high flames.

A look inside the Red Oak Steakhouse kitchen from the casino floor.

My voice cracks like a teenager asking someone to prom when I order the A5 Kobe strip steak ($150). Red Oak is one of the few restaurants in America offering certified Kobe beef, an elusive breed of pure-blood Tajima Wagyu cattle born, raised, slaughtered and processed in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture. What makes the steak special is its marbling, which Saracen’s food and beverage director, Todd Gold, attributes to genetics. “With Kobe, there are no big chunks of fat like on traditional steaks. Rather, the fat is evenly dispersed throughout the muscle in a type of spider web of ultra-thin veins,” Gold said. Carlton Saffa, Saracen’s chief marketing officer, tells me Saracen sought the certification to reinforce its commitment to raising the bar in Arkansas, making Saracen as much of a food destination as it is for gaming.

The fried oysters app our waiter recommends might be worth the trip alone — a layer of delicious pork belly-smoked grits topped with creamed spinach and the delicately fried oyster, covered with a flavorful pickled-corn tartar sauce that I would happily eat out of a jar with a spoon. It’s the best dish I’ve eaten this year.

The fried oysters at Red Oak Steakhouse.

The 8-ounce Kobe strip arrives on a wooden cutting board with three crisped rice rounds resembling scallops and topped with microgreens. Each rice round has a dollop of a sweet and tangy orange sauce beside it, almost resembling cherry tomatoes. Cutting through the Kobe strip proves to be effortless; a dull butter knife would probably work just fine. As far as steak goes, I’ve never had one more tender; it almost dissolves in your mouth. A “wow” is certainly in order. It’s also thinner than my friend and I both imagined, nicely seared, but could’ve done with one less pinch of salt. It’s unlike any steak I’ve ever eaten and, to drive the point home, comes with a letter of authenticity. Our waiter drops off a complimentary side of Brussels sprouts, which are fantastic and enough to feed a family of four ($9 value).

AUTHENTIC KOBE: Red Oak’s Kobe A5 strip came with a certificate of authenticity.

If we’d been blindfolded and taken to Red Oak Steakhouse, I’d be shocked to exit the restaurant and find myself in the back of a casino in Pine Bluff. It could definitely exist among the elite restaurants in Little Rock or Bentonville.

The casino is slammed without feeling crowded and has a nice vibe. Casinos can feel sad, but Saracen feels like a place where people might go to hang out and drink and maybe get a bite to eat without even gambling. My only complaint: It would be a nicer experience without the secondhand wafts of cigarette smoke.

We nestle up to a craps table with a $15 minimum. The table is hot. A lot of people know each other. The dealers are friendly with the regulars and sometimes know their bets before they make them. We play for a couple of hours without ever buying back in. My friend cashes out up well over $100. I lose $17. Given how hot the table was, I should’ve bet more aggressively.

Tally: I visited four casinos, risked $370 and walked away down $14. I feel good about it, but now I feel like I need to win back that $14. That’s the problem with gambling.

If you have a gambling problem the National Council on Problem Gambling Helpline offers a confidential, 24-hour helpline for problem gamblers or their family members at 1-800-522-4700.

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