Oaklawn’s No. 1 Fan, Betty Henderson, Dies at 98

You probably didn’t know Betty Henderson, which is your loss. I did. She was my aunt and she passed away Wednesday at her home in Hot Springs, Arkansas at the age of 98.

I’m writing this not because I lost a beloved aunt and my father’s sister, but because, unbeknownst to the sport, the game has lost the type of fan we want all fans to be. If you’re reading this, you probably like horse racing. Then there are those like Betty. They don’t just like it. It gets so ingrained within some that it becomes a part of their very being. It’s their primary focus, their greatest pleasure and it makes their lives demonstrably better. With its myriad problems, racing can turn most of us into cynics. But not the Aunt Bettys of the world. They find so much joy in the sport that their view is forever through rose-colored glasses. Good for them.

She was born in 1925 in Missouri and had a tough life growing up, as her father lost his job during the Great Depression and the family became sharecroppers in order to survive. She worked alongside her parents and siblings picking cotton in the fields when she was just a child. It was not until she was in her thirties that she discovered horse racing, but it became one of the great passions of her life.

Until her health started to fail her a year or so ago, she was the happiest, liveliest nonagenarian you could ever hope to meet, and she would tell you, if you asked, that the reason was horse racing. Especially racing at her home track, Oaklawn Park. It’s no exaggeration to say that it became the most important thing in her world and I have no doubt she never would have lived as long as she did without racing and the way it stimulated her life.

“Now that I am back to feeling good I am looking forward to the big races,” she told me in a 2015 email, then a spry 90-year-old. “Love every minute I spend working on the PP’s. Besides, it keeps my brain going and, believe me, when you get old you need something interesting to do and I can’t think of anything as good as horse racing. Hot Springs is a wonderful racing town and I am so glad I live here.”

In 2013, she couldn’t resist bragging about a winning streak she went on.

“Out of the 12 races yesterday, I cashed in on nine of them,” she wrote in another email. “Didn’t have information from anyone, just worked off my Brisnet and my own knowledge. I sure did need that boost as for the past month I had been losing. So I had a day to remember. I thought my tired, old, almost 90-year-old brain was letting me down. Now I know I have a few cells left.”

It might have been different if she just played her favorite numbers, the hot jockey or some hunch plays. But that was never her. She couldn’t understand why some of her friends at the track never bothered to learn more about the fascinating riddle to be solved that was handicapping. She’d bet $2 a race, maybe $5 if she had a good opinion on a horse, and that was only after she studied the past performances and her Brisnet data for hours. She always thought the best way to promote racing was to teach people how to handicap and how to bet, a theory she put fourth in an interview in the TDN in 2020.

Henderson at Saratoga in 1989 with her brother, Joe Finley. Finley was a labor lawyer who wrote handicapping books under the pen name William L. Scott | Lucinda Finley photo

“I feel that the tracks should have a one-hour teaching program every day, advertise it and really teach the population to handicap,” she said in the story. “I was so fortunate to have the best-ever teacher, my brother Joe Finley, who wrote the popular handicapping book How Will Your Horse Run Today? and others under the pen name of William L. Scott. I now have enjoyed handicapping races for 50 years and hope to enjoy it for a few more.”

While she was serious about her gambling, she was also at Oaklawn to socialize. As she got older, she would go to the track less often and always avoided the biggest days, like GI Arkansas Derby Day, because the track was too crowded. But on most Saturdays, she would be there, always perched at her regular table in the Post Parade restaurant on the first floor of the grandstand.

She commanded the room like no one else.

“She was one of our regulars,” said Karie Hobby, Oaklawn’s manager of food and beverage operations. “She had a love for the game and she knew every racetrack and every horse. She was just so engaging. It was hard not to know her. She was definitely loved. When Miss Betty would come in the restaurant, it was like the world stopped a little bit. Everybody had to say hello to her and she knew everyone’s name. She was just so caring and considerate. She fell in love with Oaklawn Park. She touched way more people here than you could ever imagine.”

I sent Betty a couple of emails around the opening day of the 2022-2023 Oaklawn meet, wishing her well and hoping that she’d have a winning meet at the windows. When she didn’t answer I knew something had to be wrong. She had had some pulmonary issues, had lost a great deal of weight and, as it turned out, was too frail to make it to the track or to correspond with her nephew.
“From the beginning of the meet, she wasn’t there at her regular table,” Hobby said. “We started reaching out and were told her health was not so good but she would come if she ever felt up to it.

Everyone in the restaurant started looking around and asking, ‘Where’s Betty…Where’s Betty?’”

Hobby doesn’t believe she made it to the races even once during the meet, which tells you how sick she must have been.

This is what she had to say in the last email I ever received from her: “I just know I will attend the races this coming Saturday and enjoy every minute of it!!!!” she wrote.

Win or lose, I’m sure she did. She wasn’t rich or famous. She never owned or trained a horse. I imagine that on the best day she ever had at the windows she probably won a couple hundred dollars or so. But there’s never been anyone that got more out of horse racing than Betty Henderson. Racing was lucky to have her, but she was even luckier to have racing.

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