02/16/2011 2:57PM

Clean start key for Oatman in Winter Derby at Los Alamitos

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Oatman finished a troubled sixth in the $2 million Los Alamitos Million Futurity in December, a loss that left the husband-wife training team of Mark and Holly Skeen wondering what could have been.

After a tough start, Oatman was beaten three-quarters of a length by One Quick First Down, who earned $818,874. Oatman’s portion of the purse was a still respectable $97,845, but less than hoped.

“I can’t say he would have won,” Holly Skeen said earlier this week. “I have to say he could have broken better than he did. He could have improved his position.”

Two months later, Oatman’s gate manners have improved, leaving him a top contender for Friday’s $215,600 Los Alamitos Winter Derby. The winner’s share is $90,552, which will seem like more for the Skeens if the gelding can win the 400-yard race.

“We’ve won a couple of handicaps, but this would be incredible,” Holly Skeen said.

Oatman had the second-fastest qualifying time of 19.475 seconds in trials on Jan. 28, winning his division by 1 1/4 lengths. In the preceding weeks, jockey Joel Cruz frequently stood Oatman in the starting gate, a procedure conducted for the final time Tuesday.

“That was his major issue when he was a 2-year-old,” Skeen said. “It wasn’t that he was bad, but he wasn’t focusing and leaving when they would open. In the last race, he was professional and left. We’re hoping he does that on Friday.”

Oatman was purchased for $50,000 at the 2009 Los Alamitos Equine Sale by Mark’s father and sister, Ronald Skeen and Fawna Knight. On Friday, Oatman must break well to win the Winter Derby. The field of 10 is led by The Goodbye Kisser, who set the fastest qualifying time of 19.41.

The Goodbye Kisser won the Pacific Coast Quarter Horse Racing Association Breeders’ Futurity in October and is one of two major stakes winners in the Winter Derby field. West Coast Hawk, winner of the Kindergarten Futurity, will start from the rail.

The Goodbye Kisser will be favored, and trainer Paul Jones expects a winning race.

“She’s really a nice horse and has been pretty successful,” Jones said. “We drew a good post, so we’re happy. She can stay out of trouble, hopefully.”

Oatman and The Goodbye Kisser are in posts 8 and 9, meaning most eyes will be on the outside part of the gate at the start.