(Oaklawn Park has it all. Why can’t we? / Photos by Gene McLean)

Drive across Arkansas, and the place doesn’t look much different than Kentucky. In fact, in many places it looks just the same. Rolling hills. The green, green grass of home. Pine trees dot the landscape. Water streams along the side of the road, cutting their way through the fertile fields like a hot knife through butter.

Stop and eat breakfast, and talk to the folks of Arkansas. And, the people aren’t much different than the ones that you will meet in Kentucky, either. They talk about their jobs with a smile on their faces. They talk about their families with a pride in their heart and in their song of a voice. They are proud of who they are and where they come from. They are friendly to the core. They wear it on their sleeves and in their soul. Not ashamed to open the door to their hearts and let you in. Their smiles are the welcome mat.

When I walked up to rent a car in the parking garage of the Little Rock airport, the ladies behind the Thrifty counter bubbled with enthusiasm and chatter. One of the gals was born in Lexington, before relocating to the Southwest. Another lady loved to talk. About horses. About KFC. About her beloved Razorbacks. About anything and everything. Didn’t matter. She just loved to chat.

At the end of our conversation, she said:

“I’m going to give you the Manager’s discount,” she said with a laugh. “An upgrade and a discount.”

I looked at her and grinned. “Do you have to get the Manager’s approval to do all that,” I asked.

“Honey, I am the manager,” she belted, with a hearty laugh. I did, too.

In return, I promised to bring the ladies a box of chocolates upon my return to Little Rock. After all, it was Valentine’s Day weekend.

You should have seen their smiles when I walked in on Sunday, with a bundle of Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups for each. New acquaintances. New friends. Just like many of our own folk.

When Leigh Ann and I got to Little Rock and we toured the city, we found a town that resembled many others that we have traveled to and from throughout Kentucky, as well. Family-owned and operated diners. The cheesecake at Maxine’s was truly homemade. Much like Dumplings in Murray, KY. We stayed in a 9-room hotel that was formerly a bath house. The place is owned by the Mayor of Hot Springs. He doubled as the valet, and retrieved our car on a couple of occasions. Took no tip. Much like Holly Hill Inn in Midway, I thought. The nightlife consisted of a rooftop bar at the Water’s Hotel in downtown Hot Springs. A propane gas-fired pit warmed the chilly air. Our server was 91/2 months pregnant, and working for tips from a handful of customers. She was pleasant and home-brewed to the core. She was warmer that the fire pit. Reminded me of so many places and people back home.

On Saturday, we made our way to Oaklawn Park for the races. Drove by the Baptist Church, which was parked just across the street from the racetrack that has been part of Hot Springs since there were Hot Springs. I laughed out loud when I saw the sign by the church’s parking lot. “No racetrack parking allowed.” As soon as I passed the empty lot, I turned down a little side road and parked in the back yard of the church’s neighbor. The boy directing us into the space could not have been 12 years old. And, he could not have been more pleasant. He gave me a “tip sheet” along with the sodded parking spot. I gave him a $5 tip that he didn’t want to accept. “Momma says I can’t charge people for helping them park,” he said. I grinned and told him that “momma” didn’t need to know. It was our agreement. He grinned back and said, “Thank you, sir.” As I walked to the racetrack, I wondered to myself how much the church could have used the same $10 it cost to park and how much it could have helped others in the community with a giving heart.

As we strolled into the track entrance, I looked around and took inventory of the crowd — flooding into the historic venue to watch the greatest sport on Earth. There were young couples, holding hands and onto each other, as if on their first date together. There were older folks, holding hands and onto each other for support, as if on their last legs. There were Moms with kids, and Dads with popcorn and pop. There were kids with dreams running through their heads about as fast as their little legs were running them around the statue of American Pharoah that stood still in the entrance. There were guys in jeans and cowboy hats. There were gals in dresses to the hilt. There were laughs and conversations running over each other like Maximum Security in the final turn of Churchill Downs on Derby Day.

The clubhouse was packed. People in every box.

The outdoor seats were packed. People in every spot.

The staircases jammed from begin to end.

The concession stands log-jammed.

The corned beef sandwiches were piled thick and served hot.

The beer was drawn cold and splashed upon greeting.

A crowded crowd, to be sure.

They looked just like us. They acted just like us. They were us. If you have blind-folded someone and told them they were in Kentucky? You would not have gotten an argument. Minus the twang of Arkansas, that sings just a bit more Southern than our version of English in Kentucky? You could not have told the difference.

But that was just the beginning of this fun adventure.

Just to the right of the indoor paddock, where the horses are decorated with saddle and rider, is the entrance to the Oaklawn Casino. And, just inside the doors awaited the newest addition — a state-of-the-art Sports Betting venue.

If there were 30,000 people at the races this Saturday, and there was every bit of that attendance, then there was another group of thousands in the Casino, too. The slot machine seats were full. To the gills. The gaming tables spilled over with customers. The lines to the bathrooms extended out the doors.

And, the fans of the Sports Betting bar were standing 10-deep. Seriously, 10-deep.

They were watching basketball on some TVS, and football on others. They were watching horse racing on some TVS, and soccer on others. They were watching on golf on some TVs, and, believe it or not, watching a corn-hole tournament on others.

Some went to the windows to bet. Others used stand-alone machines. Some just stood and watched.

And, guess what?

I never saw one unruly person in the entire place. Not one.

I never saw one human that appeared to be homeless, or wagering their last dime.

I never witnessed one “sad scene” that I might see at any given traffic light on any given day.

I never saw one person casting judgment on the person standing beside them.

What I did see was a bunch of people cheering; laughing; celebrating; clapping.

What I did see was a bunch of fun.

Don’t know where you come from, but where I was raised, you were “learned” how to work. Long and hard. You made what you earned. Every last penny. Once it was paid, it was yours. Yours alone, after you gave unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and gave unto the Lord what was the Lord’s.

And, from where I come from, nobody told you how to spend what you earned, either. That, my friends, is none of their darn business. Excuse me. It is none of their damn business.

I got the feeling that is the way people from Arkansas feel, too.

Some enjoyed a day at the races. And, spent their money there. Some enjoyed a day at the Casino, and spent their money there. Some, like visitors LA and me, enjoyed both. And, spent some of our money in both places.

I am as proud to be a native of Kentucky as anybody who has ever had the great pleasure to be born and raised in the Commonwealth. It is my home. I have never lived anywhere else. Not a single day. And, anytime I ever left for a visit, I was glad to get back home. Home to the Bluegrass.

But, truth be known, I am downright ashamed and embarrassed that the government folks in Arkansas had the guts and fortitude to do the right thing, and we can’t seem to implore the same types in Kentucky to do likewise.

Ashamed.

Embarrassed.

Pissed, to be honest.

It is time that the people who are elected to do our business in Frankfort do the right thing. And, do it right now.

Call HB 137 for full debate on the House Floor.

Take a damn vote.

Let people know what you stand for and what you stand behind.

If you are against it, then have the guts to stand up in public and say why you think you know how to spend my money better than me. If you are the backwoods country lawyer — who doubles as a practicing member of the Kentucky House of Representatives in Frankfort — and you are the one trying to scare people from taking a vote? Come out from the closet and the back room. Stand up, like a real statesman. Cast your vote in public. Take your best hold. Make your best case. And, if you have the votes to beat it, then so be it.

I bet you don’t, but so be it.

If not?

Well, in Arkansas — and Kentucky — we call it democracy.

Try it out.

You may like it.

If you are for it, then have the guts to stand up in public and defend what you think is right; and just; and fair and equitable. Just like the legislators have done in Indiana and are doing in Missouri, Tennessee, Ohio, Illinois, and West Virginia right now.

If the fine people of Arkansas can have Horse Racing, and Sports Betting, too? Then, why not us?

After all, there ain’t a nickel’s worth of difference between the good folks of Arkansas and us Kentuckians.

Not from what I can find.

They are good people.

So are we.

On the way out of the track, we walked to our car. The same little boy who helped us park was standing outside to wave goodbye. He told me “thanks” for the tip, again. He said he told his mom about it. He told me that his mom had told him that he could keep it, but he had to give 10% to the church.

I smiled and told him that was great. I asked him which church he was going to give it to.

The little boy smiled and said, “That one.”

He pointed at the Baptist church with the sign in the front. The sign that read: “No racetrack traffic allowed.”

I laughed and asked him why that church.

He grinned and returned an answer without hesitation. “They make us a lot of money. I figured I would share it with them.”

From the mouths of babes.

(Photos from Oaklawn Park & Casino / All Photos by Gene McLean)