06/18/2008 12:00AM

Cart and Simington off to fast starts

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BOSSIER CITY, La. - A couple of familiar but somewhat surprising names are atop the rider and trainer standings at Louisiana Downs after the first five weeks of the meeting.

While trainer Jerry Cart and jockey Don Simington are perennial members of the top-10 club here, neither has ever won a local title. And while Cart and Simington aren't penciling themselves in to win their divisions this season, both are pleased with their hot starts. Cart has won with seven of his 21 starters thus far and Simington is 17-for-109.

"I've got more numbers this year," the soft-spoken Cart said. "A few more owners and horses, and so far the results have been good."

Most of Cart's training activity comes at the nearby Benton Training Center, which is near his home.

"We keep about 15 stalls ontrack to run out of," he said. "We have 40 out at the farm and shuttle them in. It works out well."

Cart is also a player in the Louisiana breeding industry, which is in the middle of a renaissance of sorts with all four of the state's tracks now sporting slot machines. Louisiana's foal count in recent seasons has increased more than any state in the country.

"I have about 15 mares," Cart said. "I also board some mares for some other folks."

Much of Cart's success has worked hand-in-hand with what Simington has accomplished, as the veteran has been riding first call for the barn.

"We have been blessed thus far," said Ronald Ardoin, the all-time Louisiana riding leader who serves as Simington's agent here. "It seems we have been riding for everybody at the right time. Cart, Pam Simpson, Jerry Hardin. Hopefully we can keep it up."

Evangeline purse hike begins Saturday

Evangeline Downs has announced an across-the-board purse increase effective this Saturday.

Maiden special weight and allowance races will increase by $2,000 per race, with open maidens now running for $24,000 and statebreds for $32,000. Those figures represent the second-highest such purses in the state behind Fair Grounds.

Conditioned allowance races will begin at $25,000 with the same event for Louisiana-breds worth $33,000.

Mid- and upper-level claiming events will increase by $1,000, while lower-level events will be boosted by $500.

"Our field sizes continue to be some of the most numerous in the country," said racing secretary Jason Boulet. "We have been able to buck the national trend of reduced handle and are on pace for another record-breaking season here in Cajun country."

Arkansas residents sweep contest

Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., drew 110 horseplayers from throughout North America last weekend for its two-day qualifying tournament for the Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship. But in the end, it was Arkansas residents who swept the first three spots in the contest to win berths into the finale in Las Vegas in January 2009.

Phil Cleek, a schoolteacher from Sherwood, Ark., won the Oaklawn qualifier with a bankroll of $272.10. The runner-up was Ken Arthur of Bismarck, Ark., with a bankroll of $215. Amy Brantley of Little Rock finished third, with a bankroll of $209.40.

This year's qualifier was held two months earlier than last year's. Cleek entered the second day of the tournament in ninth place, but after earning $187.10 on the final day, he shot to the lead. For his win, he earned a first-place check of $7,000.

"I intend to represent Oaklawn very well in Las Vegas," Cleek said.

Cleek has been a regular in handicapping competitions at Oaklawn through the years, and won the first two the track ever conducted back in the mid-1990s.

* Trainer Michelle Lovell unveiled one of the more impressive winners of the Louisiana Downs meeting in last Saturday's second race for 2-year-old maidens. Time Well Spent went to the front on her own courage for jockey Carlos Gonzalez and steadily increased her advantage to more than 14 lengths at the finish. Lovell said that plans for the Arkansas-bred filly include a start in next month's Princess Stakes, a race Lovell won last year with Shedoesrock.

- additional reporting by Mary Rampellini