03/26/2009 11:00PM

Apple Blossom coming up strong


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Oaklawn Park will move into the most significant - as well as the final - portion of its meet next Saturday when it opens the annual Racing Festival of the South stakes program with the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom and the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap.

The races are two of nine stakes worth a cumulative $2.8 million to be run over the final week of the meet, which closes on April 11 with the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby.

The Apple Blossom is the lone Grade 1 stakes race in the Southwest region, and there were four strong early probables for it as of Friday, said Oaklawn stakes coordinator Craig Lytel.

They are Acoma, the winner of the Grade 3, $150,000 Azeri here March 8 who was due to arrive from Fair Grounds on Monday; Proud Spell, the winner of last year's Kentucky Oaks; Bsharpsonata, a recent third in the Grade 2 La Canada at Santa Anita; and Seventh Street, the runner-up in the recent Grade 2 Barbara Fritchie at Laurel.

Honest Man and It's a Bird, who along with Macho Again are co-highweighted at 119 pounds, are both expected for the Oaklawn Handicap, said Lytel. Others he considered probable are Secret Getaway (117), Magnum (116), Prom Shoes (114), Catmantoo (113), and Runforthedoe (113). Possibles include Golden Yank (117) and Victory Pete (114).

The Grade 2, $250,000 Fantasy for 3-year-old fillies will be run next Sunday, and early probables are Afleet Deceit, Bon Jovi Girl, Just Jenda, and Rachel Alexandra. Possibles include Be Fair and More of the Best.

Lytel said a plane bringing horses from California is scheduled to arrive here Tuesday. A plane from Florida is due in on Thursday.

Win Willy, who upset the Grade 2, $300,000 Rebel Stakes on March 14, breezed a half-mile in 48.40 seconds here Friday in preparation for the Arkansas Derby. His rivals are expected to include Old Fashioned, Papa Clem, and Poltergeist. There are 79 nominees to the race.

Ain't He a Pistol heads Nodouble

There have been just two Arkansas-bred stakes run each year at Oaklawn since 1979, the familiar Rainbow and Rainbow Miss for 3-year-olds. But this season, the statebred stakes program has been expanded. Oaklawn will introduce a new race for older Arkansas-breds at six furlongs on Sunday when it runs the $50,000 Nodouble Breeders'. It will have a strong favorite in Ain't He a Pistol.

"This is his big race," said Tom Howard, who trains Ain't He a Pistol. "Ever since we heard about it, we've kind of been waiting and pointing for it."

Ain't He a Pistol comes into the Nodouble off a neck allowance win against open company, covering six furlongs in 1:10.60. Since the race, the runner-up, Grand Sensation, has won a $65,000 optional claimer here with a Beyer of 95, and the sixth-place finisher, Sebastian County, has come back to win at the same level, with a Beyer of 99. Howard said he was looking for a good race from Ain't He a Pistol, but the win was a pleasant surprise in a deep field that included the Grade 1-placed Greeley's Conquest.

"I thought we could be close in there, somewhere he'd account for himself, but he always seems to step up for the occasion," Howard said of the 14-time winner. "He's always willing and ready and he proved himself."

Perry Compton has the mount on Ain't He a Pistol, who races for Lewis Matthews Jr. The stakes will share a card with the $50,000 Rainbow.

* Unbridled Express, who finished second by a head in his first start in 2o1/2 years on Thursday, came out of the race well and will head next to Kentucky, said his trainer, Bernie Flint.

* Jockey Tim Doocy, who is closing in on 5,000 career wins, was at 4,992 through Thursday.