04/04/2002 1:00AM

In absence of stars, a shot to grab spotlight

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The Grade 1, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap on Saturday may not have a true star, but the race has drawn a well-matched field of eight horses, several of whom have the potential to improve their standing in the handicap division.

Mr Ross, a longtime regional leader, would earn much-deserved national recognition with a win in the 1 1/8-mile race. Kudos, a stakes winner on turf, can prove he is a better horse on dirt. Graeme Hall seeks redemption for his second-place finish as the favorite in the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap, while Crafty Shaw and Dollar Bill can live up to the potential they have flashed on occasion during their careers.

"Any number of horses have a good chance to win this race, and we're one of them," said Donnie Von Hemel, who trains Mr Ross.

The Oaklawn Handicap is the first of two Grade 1 races on the card Saturday, and is scheduled as the eighth race on a 12-race program. It is also the first half of a special daily double that is completed by the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap.

Mr Ross had a tremendous local campaign last year, which was capped by his second-place finish to Traditionally in the Oaklawn Handicap. He comes into this year's renewal as sharp, with two wins in two starts in 2002, his most recent a neck score in the Grade 3, $100,000 Razorback Handicap on March 16. He will be ridden by Don Pettinger.

Eddie Delahoussaye has the mount on Kudos, who was transferred to the main track two starts ago and seems to have stepped up his game as a result. Last out he finished a troubled third to Milwaukee Brew in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, and before that won the off-the-turf San Marino Handicap at Santa Anita on Feb. 17.

"He had been training good on the dirt, and so we actually hoped it would rain and the San Marino would come off as the race did," said trainer Richard Mandella. "Because of his effort, we tried the Santa Anita Handicap. He ran good in there, and right now, I'm thinking it's possible he's better on dirt than turf."

Kudos figures to be closer to the pace in the Oaklawn Handicap than he was in the Santa Anita as he was shuffled back early. Crafty Shaw also found himself farther back than most expected in his last start, when he finished an even fourth as the favorite in the Razorback Handicap.

Crafty Shaw did not fire that afternoon, but trainer Pete Vestal looks for the colt to recapture his best form Saturday. And the colt's best form is very good. In the Grade 3, $75,000 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn in February, the well-regarded Crafty Shaw won his fourth consecutive race, earning a 113 Beyer Speed Figure. He is to be ridden by James Lopez.

Pat Day will ride This Fleet Is Due, who adds blinkers for trainer Bill Mott.