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story.lead_photo.caption A backhoe operator digs a hole at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort Tuesday, May 7, 2019. Construction crews are on site beginning the expansion to the gaming area. (Photo by the Sentinel-Record/Richard Rasmussen)

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — It's a new era at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, as the $100 million expansion announced in November 2018 is now well underway.

The expansion, which will include 28,000 square feet of additional gaming space that will open before the 2020 live racing season, was announced after the November 2018 passage of Amendment 100 to the Arkansas Constitution. The amendment allows Oaklawn and Southland Gaming and Racing in West Memphis to expand into full casinos. It also allows casinos to be placed in Pope and Jefferson counties, provided local officials approve.

Oaklawn's expansion also includes a high-rise luxury hotel and multipurpose event center overlooking the track.

Jennifer Hoyt, media relations manager, said equipment was moved in shortly after the end of the live meet May 4.

"The equipment has all been brought in and work will begin in earnest [this] week," Hoyt said Friday. "[Workers] did start tearing down old barns and working on the new entrance this week."

While Oaklawn has no plans for a formal groundbreaking ceremony, Hoyt said as progress continues, regular updates will be made available.

"This week we made a bunch of progress. We're building six new barns this year. We've taken down most of Barn 29. Next to our HR building, we've got the new storage building. But, of course, the first thing people will notice is the new light [traffic signal] going in -- the new entrance," she said.

"By the time we're finished, we will have built a total of 14 new barns since 2015. I don't know of any other racetrack putting that much effort in."

Hoyt said the change in dates for 2019, which had the live meet starting Jan. 25 and running through Kentucky Derby Day May 4, proved positive, with increases in the total handle and attendance for the meet.

"We saw across the board a 10% increase in total handles and a 7% increase in attendance," Hoyt said. "I think those numbers would have been even higher had we not had such a rainy April."

For 2019, the total handle came in at $233,124,559. Total attendance was 551,650.

"We had 22,000 in attendance on Kentucky Derby Day," Hoyt said. "Our hope was that the Oaklawn Invitational would serve as a steppingstone for those horses that were not going to the Kentucky Derby, but could qualify for the Preakness and the Belmont."

According to a news release, Improbable and Laughing Fox, the second- and fourth-place finishers, respectively, in the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 13, are on target to meet again in the Preakness, the second leg of racing's Triple Crown on Saturday at Pimlico.

"It just shows how strong our racing program was this year," Hoyt said.

Oaklawn also began offering live craps and live blackjack April 1, which Hoyt said have had an overwhelming response.

"We knew the table games were going to go over big, but we didn't think they were going to go over this big," she said. "Table games have stayed packed, especially on race days."

The Arkansas Racing Commission approved casino licenses on March 23 for Oaklawn and Southland. Both racetracks previously offered electronic games of skill, but under Amendment 100 to the Arkansas Constitution, approved by voters in November, both were authorized to be licensed as full-fledged casinos. The amendment also allows betting on other sporting events.

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Information from Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Arkansas Online.

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