02/04/2005 1:00AM

Bennett has yet to unveil his best

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Dale Bennett, an up-and-coming trainer who has recently picked up four horses for prominent Chicago owner Frank Calabrese, is making a splash in his first meet at Oaklawn.

He has won with 3 of his first 8 starters, and his biggest guns, Wonone, a promising 3-year-old, and stakes winners Cats Copy and Marley's Revenge, will not be seen until later in the meet. In all, Bennett, who spends the rest of the year in Illinois, has 24 horses at Oaklawn.

"I have a good half-dozen allowance, stakes horses, and I have some nice mid-level claimers," said Bennett, 32.

Bennett is coming off the best year of his career, with 39 wins from 170 starts in 2004, and stable earnings of $769,236. He won with 22 percent of his starters last year, and as a rule has had a high win percentage since he began training in 1998. Bennett was last at Oaklawn four years ago when he worked as an assistant to his father, Gerald Bennett, a top Michigan horseman who is currently stabled at Tampa Bay Downs.

Bennett has mapped out tentative schedules for his stakes horses. Cats Copy, a three-time stakes winner, will be considered for the Grade 3, $175,000 Oaklawn Breeders' Cup on March 12, he said.

Marley's Revenge broke a turf course record for 5 1/2 furlongs at Arlington Park in September when he won the $44,000 Taylor's Special in 1:02.44, lowering the mark of 1:02.60, which had stood since 1970. Marley's Revenge is also a stakes winner on dirt, and is a candidate for sprint stakes at Oaklawn, including the Grade 3, $150,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap on April 14.

"The long-term goal is to keep him on the grass," said Bennett.

Wonone seems to have an exciting future. In his last start, on Dec. 5, he won a six-furlong allowance at Hawthorne in a blazing time of 1:08.97. He is a son of Grand Slam and his dam is a sister to Grade 1 winner Elmhurst. Bennett is in no rush with Wonone, who worked an easy half-mile in 52.80 seconds on Thursday, his first work since December.

"He came up with a little minor splint," said Bennett. "We took care of that, so this was his first work."

Wonone will likely make his return in an allowance sprint, and Bennett said he may look at stretching out Wonone around two turns in the $75,000 Instant Racing Breeders' Cup on the Arkansas Derby undercard April 16.

Wonone races for Marc Goldish and Savoy Stable. Other owners that make up the Bennett barn include Wayne Bessler and Plaine Enterprises. Another integral part of the Bennett team is his wife, retired jockey Denise Bennett.

Eddie Perez, who is back at Oaklawn for the first time since 1991, is the first-call rider for the barn. He has been aboard Wonone for both of the colt's wins. Wonone is "great from the gate," said Perez. "He's pretty quick from the gate."

Bennett and Perez have a mutual respect for each other. "He's very patient, and he always puts himself in a position to win turning for home," said Bennett. "He doesn't make very many mistakes."

"He's a big reason I did not go on vacation and decided to come to Oaklawn," said Perez.

Perez and Bennett will team together in the featured eighth race Sunday with Pistol Whip.

* Smoke Chaser, a stakes winner last year for Bennett, has been retired. In all, she won four stakes and $324,024.

* There is no worktab for Friday because there was heavy morning fog at Oaklawn. The horses were allowed to train.

* There is an early post of 1 p.m. Central on Sunday because of the Super Bowl.