01/30/2008 1:00AM

Classics club growing at Oaklawn


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - It's difficult to walk the barn area at Oaklawn Park without thinking of the Triple Crown. It seems there are reminders around every corner.

David Cross, who trained Sunny's Halo, has a license plate on his sparkling white Mercedes that reads "Derby 83."

And down a few barns from where he parks, the yellow and red saddle towels that 2005 Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Afleet Alex used - sometimes twice a day - are still in circulation at trainer Tim Ritchey's barn.

Across the street in the Smarty Jones barn, named for the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, the horse's trainer, John Servis, is a familiar sight going over his set list for the current division of horses he has based at Oaklawn.

Cross, Ritchey, and Servis are among seven winners of a Triple Crown race who are stabled this meet in Hot Springs. The others are Steve Asmussen, D. Wayne Lukas, Jack Van Berg, and Lynn Whiting.

"I like the fact that I'm on the list now," said Asmussen, who won last year's Preakness with eventual Horse of the Year Curlin. "I'm finally on the list!"

Ritchey first noticed the numbers a year ago, when trainer Tom Bohannan showed up at Oaklawn after an absence. Bohannan, who won the Preakness with both Pine Bluff and Prairie Bayou, is no longer stabled here, but with Cross and Van Berg sending divisions to Hot Springs this year and Asmussen winning his first Classic last year, the list grew.

"When you sit down and think of the quality of horses and horsemen at Oaklawn Park, it says a lot to have seven Triple Crown race-winning trainers on the backside," Ritchey said. "It tells you the road to the Triple Crown obviously leads through Oaklawn Park."

Servis showed up in Hot Springs in 2004 with an undefeated colt named Smarty Jones who would become one of the most popular horses ever to race at Oaklawn.

"The reason I came here from the beginning was the 3-year-old races," Servis said. "I loved the way the time frame was between races and the way the distance progressed."

The spacing and distance buildup of Oaklawn's races also attracted Ritchey. In addition, he liked the timing of three weeks between the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby.

The placement of the Arkansas Derby in relation to the Kentucky Derby was a little different back in 1992. That's when Whiting sent out Lil E. Tee to finish second by a neck in the Arkansas Derby, then win the Kentucky Derby.

"I think this is a pretty good place to prepare a horse, to get your Triple Crown preps under them now that we've got the proper spacing, the three weeks to the Derby," Whiting said. "When Lil E. Tee won it, we only had two weeks. We came right back close. A lot of people wouldn't choose that spacing in this era because I think trainers are more geared to three and possibly four weeks, which would suit some horses better."

Cross first came to Oaklawn Park in the 1960s, then returned in 1983 with eventual Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby winner Sunny's Halo. He believes his horses may benefit from one of the area's natural resources.

"The horses do well here," said Cross, whose 18-horse stable is split between Oaklawn and a training center near Toronto. "I've got three here and they haven't left an oat and they go through water. A lot to do with the water here. They drink more water here than any place I've ever been. At Saratoga they do, too, naturally, but they drink a lot of water here."

Like Saratoga Springs, Hot Springs has long been known for the therapeutic properties of its mineral-rich water.

Lukas won the first of his 13 Triple Crown races in 1980, when he captured the Preakness with Codex. He is tied with the late trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons for most Classic wins.

As for Van Berg, he is back at Oaklawn after an absence. In 1987, he had the 3-year-old division by its tail with the Southern California-based Alysheba, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Of the seven trainers, Asmussen is best positioned to immediately add to his Triple Crown record. His top hopes for this year's Kentucky Derby are Pyro, the runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and Z Fortune. Both horses are based at Fair Grounds.

Ritchey, meanwhile, echoes the sentiment of many Triple Crown trainers when he reflects on the time he had with Afleet Alex.

"Alex was a once in a lifetime," he said. "I'm just glad I had one. Will I ever have another? Who knows? I've got some Afleet Alex foals that are probably going to be my best chance."