In The Running
The usual roar of the grandstands at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, formerly Oaklawn Park Race Track in Hot Springs, Arkansas, dulled to a deafening silence due to COVID-19 protocols near the end of last year’s racing season. While fans could not watch and cheer on the animals in person, the horses still ran and trained at the Hot Springs mainstay.
On Christmas of 2015, Kerry and Alan Ribble, owners of Ribble Farms, joined the fraternity of horse owners when Alan gifted Kerry a racehorse. For these two horse racing “junkies,” whose “whole calendar revolves around the race meets,” it was hard to be removed from their horses’ barn and Oaklawn during the ongoing pandemic. Kerry said, “We are so thankful that Oaklawn was able to keep the horses running even though we could not be at the track, but boy did we miss being a part of the racing action this past year.” Before COVID-19 blocked them from attending the races, Kerry and Alan used to go to the barn and give horses peppermints after their race. “I didn’t realize that I had missed handing out peppermints at the barn so much until we were finally back there.”
What could have been seen as a spur-of-the-moment decision to trek into the horse racing world on that Christmas of 2015, was actually a natural and obvious next step to the progression of the Ribbles’ life story. It is a family passion passed down to Kerry by her father. Kerry’s dad has been involved in the horse business for over 40 years. Kerry said, “He has handicapped horses, published a tip sheet and held handicapping seminars throughout his years in the business.” She has always been near the sport by listening to her father through the years. One of Kerry and Alan’s first dates was also at the same Oaklawn Park where they now own and race horses. They even spent a day of their honeymoon attending races at Louisiana Downs, a racetrack in Bossier City, Louisiana.
Kerry and Alan bought a lake house in Hot Springs in the fall of 2011 to be closer to Oaklawn. “We knew that we were going to enjoy many days attending and wanted easy access (to Oaklawn).” Kerry and Alan were introduced to jockey Terry Thompson shortly after buying their lake house, and when Alan decided that owning a horse would be an interesting business idea, he asked Terry for advice in finding a trainer to get them started. After considering the suggestions, Alan chose David Vance. David has more than 50 years of experience training, which was super helpful to the Ribbles as they were getting their feet wet in the business. “We were so green when we started out, and are so thankful for the Vances, which includes David’s wife, Lynn, and his son Tommy. They have answered every silly question that Alan and I have had and have taught us an abundance about the business and horses. We believe that this personalized attention has made our partnership the best that we could hope for starting out.”
David Vance, the trainer for the Ribbles’ stable of horses, has a long and well-regarded history as one of the best horse trainers in the area. David trained the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies champion and has been the recipient of multiple training titles at Churchill Downs. He also trained for an organization that held the North American winning record from 1974 until 2012. David was also the first trainer in Oaklawn history to reach 50 victories when he won 50 races during the 50-day season in 1974.
In 2007, an accident changed David Vance’s life. He was injured in a car accident, and he currently maneuvers around in a motorized chair. Kerry said, “When he became our trainer, I didn’t understand how training was possible when your trainer couldn’t get on the horses. There is certainly much more to it than this, but I quickly learned that training involves knowing how to develop horses to reach their full potential and knowing what races are best for each horse. David has this knowledge and experience from more than 50 years of horse training. He does the thinking, and he has helpers to get their hands on the horses.”
Some of the most memorable moments for the Ribbles came early in their ownership of horses. Kerry said, “We had the time of our lives watching our horse, Bad Student, win his first race for us. Our first time to ever go to Churchill Downs and walk under the notorious Twin Spires took us to the winner’s circle with Bad Student once again. There is nothing like the excitement of being at the racetrack and hearing the thunder of those hooves going across the finish line-that is, when your horse is in the lead!”
With David’s training, Kerry says that they are still in the early stages of moving up into allowance level of ownership, but 2019 was a “pretty hot year” for them and that it got them “fired up to own more horses,” until everything changed with the Coronavirus pandemic. “The goal of a race is to have conditions written that try and make the field of horses have equal skill level. During the times that many tracks were closed, trainers were having to enter horses into any race they could find. It was hard to know where your horse would best fit.”
The Ribbles, along with their trainer David Vance, hope to get into the winner’s circle “a few more times this race meet,” and they also hope to shop for a few more potential Saturday horses–which is a horse that will run in a feature race on a Saturday. “On the days our horses are not racing, we are keeping up with other horses in case we decide it is time to shop for another. I would have a barn full, but then again, I am not the one who sees the training bills.”
A romantic relationship between Kerry and Alan, that started with first dates at Oaklawn and honeymoon days spent at Louisiana Downs, now flourishes with a shared passion for horse ownership ever since that gift on Christmas in 2015. Kerry said, “Alan and I have had very different career paths over the years, and it has been a pleasure finding a common business interest for the two of us. After all the years of going to the races, we never envisioned the excitement that would come from the anticipation of a race with your own horse entered, nor the unending elation that we have when heading to the winner’s circle. We can spend hours lost in conversation about a race situation that has nothing to do with our horses; we are just enjoying the fascination and excitement of the sport together.”
On January 6, Oaklawn announced that they would allow a limited number of fans for their 2021 schedule. The 57-day season runs from Friday, January 22 through Saturday, May 1. “We’ve been working on plans covering numerous scenarios and we’re happy to announce we will be welcoming back race fans in 2021, albeit on a limited basis,” Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort General Manager Wayne Smith said. “We know that the fans are what make Oaklawn so special, but our main concern is for the safety and well-being of our guests and team members. We will be working with the Arkansas Department of Health throughout the live season and will adjust as needed.”
In accordance with the guidelines set forth by the Arkansas Department of Health, Oaklawn has submitted a plan to allow a limited number of spectators at the races during the 2021 live race meet highlighted by the following:
- General admission into the Grandstand will not be allowed initially in 2021.
- Entrance into the Grandstand will strictly be for guests with a racing credential and/or reservation for that day’s races. Doors will open at 11 am.
- Current seasonal box seat holders and current Oaklawn Jockey Club members may enter the Grandstand with weekly reservations required. Detailed correspondence to be sent separately to these individuals.
- Restaurants inside the Grandstand, following Arkansas Department of Health directives, will be open to the public with weekly reservations required.
- Simulcast will be open Wednesday–Sunday, 11 am–8 pm to limited capacity with weekly reservations required.
- Social distancing will be enforced.
- All guests and team members will be required to have non-invasive temperature checks as they enter the facility. Anyone presenting a temp at/over 100 degrees Fahrenheit will not be permitted inside the building.
- All guests and team members will be required to wear masks at all times.
- Smoking will not be allowed anywhere inside the facility, including the casino.
For additional details and future updates, please visit oaklawn.com.