01/21/2004 12:00AM

Alive and kicking at 100

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Oaklawn Park celebrates its 100th anniversary on Friday with the opening of a 55-day meet that will run through April 10.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The opening of Oaklawn Park is always highly anticipated in the resort town of Hot Springs. But this year, the buzz seems a bit stronger because of the major enhancements made to the track's racing program in celebration of its 100th anniversary. The party starts Friday, with the opening of a 55-day meet that will run through April 10.

Oaklawn is offering a $5 million Centennial bonus this year to any 3-year-old who can sweep the $200,000 Rebel Stakes, the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby, which has been doubled in value to $1 million, and the Kentucky Derby. And as if putting up the richest bonus in racing alongside the $5 million Visa Triple Crown bonus is not enough, average daily purses have been boosted to a record $250,000.

Such enhancements have made this meet one of the most eagerly awaited in years. Oaklawn has attracted 33 new stables, and is expected to have 1,500 horses on the grounds by Friday. Already settled in for the season are such promising 3-year-olds as Tiger Hunt, Mr. Jester, and Smarty Jones.

Each has a legitimate chance to win the bonus, which was created by Oaklawn president Charles Cella. Cella is guaranteeing the bonus out of his own pocket.

"The paramount reason for it was really to try to give back something to our patrons that they could remember, those who through all these years have supported us, in rain, snow, and sun," said Cella.

"I think the [bonus] just lit up the season," said Eric Jackson, general manager of Oaklawn. Jackson added that Oaklawn officials who have been at other tracks have been asked about the bonus everywhere they go.

"We've got a lot of 3-year-olds with potential, our backstretch is overflowing, and so are the farms around Hot Springs," Jackson said. "It looks like it has created the kind of excitement Charles thought it would when he announced it."

Cella also made the commitment to increase the purse of the Arkansas Derby - using funds from a marketing account rather than purse funds - and when the 1 1/8-mile race is renewed April 10, it will be the richest race ever staged in Arkansas. It is also one of only two $1 million Kentucky Derby preps in North America. The other is the Florida Derby.

Oaklawn has been cycling high for the past several years. Pat Pope, director of racing for the track, noted that daily purses have steadily risen from $224,000 to this year's daily projection of $250,000.

"I really believe this Friday will be the first time in a few years we have had over 1,500 horses on the backside," said Pope. "That speaks volumes to the purse structure being increased the last four or five years with the leadership of the Cella family. It's made recruiting easier."

Among the new trainers at the meet are Bernie Flint, John Servis, Ralph Nicks, Dick Clark, Bill Connelly, Tim Ritchey, and Tom Van Berg. Their target in the trainer race is Cole Norman, who is shooting for his fourth straight title after setting a record for wins in a meet at Oaklawn last year with 71.

Jamie Theriot, last year's leading rider, is back to defend his title in a colony that includes newcomers John McKee, Lonnie Meche, Willie Martinez, Roman Chapa, and apprentice Justin Shepherd.

Calvin Borel is in town to ride Movant, probable favorite for the $50,000 Dixie Belle for 3-year-old fillies on Friday. The six-furlong race is the first of 26 stakes worth $4 million this meet, with the highlight of the season being the Racing Festival of the South, when at least one stakes a day will be run from April 3 to April 10.

Movant, who is trained by Tom Amoss, is shooting for her fourth straight win. She made her stakes debut last out and was a wire-to-wire winner of the $60,000 Thelma at Fair Grounds. She faces 10 others in the Dixie Belle, among them Turn to Lass, who has placed in three stakes in her last three starts; Foolishly, winner of the $72,000 Snow White last out at Charles Town; and the Bob Holthus-trained Saltwater Runner, who is undefeated in two starts.

Oaklawn was forced to postpone opening weekend last year because of inclement weather, but it does not appear that will be the case this season. Forecasters are calling for temperatures in the 50's all weekend. The mild winter has been kind to morning training, as just one day has been missed since Oaklawn opened its track on Dec. 1.

Post for the first race Friday is 1 p.m. Central.

Oaklawn's Road to the Derby

Feb. 28; $100,000; 1 mile

March 20; $200,000; 1 1/16 miles

Arkansas Derby
April 10; $1 million; 1 1/8 miles

$5 million Centennial Bonus to any horse who wins the Rebel, Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby. Oaklawn president Charles Cella is personally guaranteeing the bonus.