01/31/2003 1:00AM

'Beauty' of an opener at Oaklawn


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - A week after freezing temperatures forced the cancellation of the first three days of the meet, Oaklawn Park opened on Friday to a crowd of 14,794. Double-digit winners ruled the first half of the program, and skies were sunny and temperatures were in the 50's.

In the featured $50,000 Dixie Belle for 3-year-old fillies, Explosive Beauty, wearing blinkers for the first time, powered to a 6 1/4-length win over Hannah's Royalrock. It was another 4 3/4 lengths back in third to Mekko Hokte.

Oaklawn handled $4,895,545 on its 10-race card Friday. The attendance was down from a year ago, when the meet opened as scheduled to a crowd of 18,142. But handle on the card topped last year's figure of $4.7 million for nine races.

Officials noted that the last time the start of the Oaklawn meet was pushed back, in 1997, attendance was down about 20 percent from the previous season. With opening weekend cancellations, Oaklawn loses patrons that make plans to come to Hot Springs well in advance.

In the Dixie Belle, Explosive Beauty ($7.20) raced about five lengths off the pace early. Wildcat Annie jumped out to a quick start and led the field through fractions of 22.05 seconds for the opening quarter and 46.03 for the half. Explosive Beauty overtook Wildcat Annie with a sweeping move into the stretch, and went on to cover six furlongs over a fast strip in 1:10.48.

Jamie Theriot rode the winner for K.K. and Vilasini Jayaraman and trainer Cole Norman.

Jockeys okay after spill

Jockeys Shane Sellers and Abel Castellano escaped serious injury in the seventh race when both were unseated from their mounts after Nerissa, ridden by Sellers, broke down in the stretch, and Humble Bille, ridden by Castellano, clipped heels with that rival.

Sellers returned to ride the next race, while Castellano complained of a sore jaw and neck and was taken to a local hospital for observation and precautionary X-rays. Nerissa suffered a compound fracture in her right front ankle and was euthanized, according to Oaklawn officials.