01/29/2003 12:00AM

E J Harley, 11, revs up for local return

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - E J Harley, the popular Arkansas-bred sprinter who raced at Oaklawn Park for seven straight seasons, from 1995-2001, is back in Hot Springs following a one-year absence. He should be seen early in the meet, said his longtime trainer David Vance.

"He doesn't know he's an 11-year-old," Vance said. "He thinks he's still a 3-year-old."

E J Harley, who was a debut winner at Oaklawn in 1995, won at least one race at the track for six straight years. Among his local stakes wins was the Hot Springs, which he won for three consecutive years from 1998-2000.

E J Harley no longer races at the stakes level, but still knows how to find the winner's circle. Last year, he led throughout over a field of $8,000 claimers at Churchill Downs in one of the two starts he made in 2002.

Overall, E J Harley has won 14 of 48 starts and earned $436,073.

Von Hemel population up

Trainer Don Von Hemel and his sons, trainers Donnie K. Von Hemel and Kelly Von Hemel, will all have stables in Hot Springs this meet. Last year, Donnie finished third in the standings at Oaklawn, but Kelly is new to Hot Springs.

The three men account for considerable horsepower. Don Von Hemel's best runners include Sand Ridge, a stakes-winning sprinter, and Cowboy Stuff, winner of the Grade 3 Round Table last year at Arlington Park.

Donnie's top horses include See How She Runs, winner of the Grade 2 Fantasy last year at Oaklawn, and millionaire Mr Ross, who is expected to make a comeback later this year at Lone Star Park.

Kelly's top horse the past several years has been Sure Shot Biscuit, who has earned over $1 million.

Purses up from last meet

Purses are up this meet because of the strong season Oaklawn had last year. Handle on the track's races rose 11 percent to a record $4.8 million a day, while daily attendance was up 6 percent to 11,980.

Also contributing to the increase is Instant Racing, a parimutuel game that plays like a slot machine. Because handle on the game rose from $8 million in 2001 to $30 million last year, officials were able to more than double what was projected to go to purses from the game, with Instant Racing to contribute about $10,000 to each racing card at Oaklawn.

Thanks in part to those funds, maiden special weight purses will be $30,000 this meet, up from $26,000 a year ago, while the bottom purse at the track has been raised $1,000 to $7,500.

Last week, two new Instant Racing games were introduced at Oaklawn.

Fifth Season returns to Festival

Oaklawn will run 26 stakes this year, one more than last year, and the difference is the $50,000 Fifth Season, a 1 1/16-mile race for older horses that has been brought back following a one-year absence. It will be run April 9.

In other changes to the $3.2 million stakes program, the $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap, which will share a program with the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom on April 5, will be run as a Grade 2, and the purse for the Rebel, a 1 1/16-mile race for 3-year-olds March 22, has been increased from $100,000 to $125,000.

Oaklawn has also built up its Arkansas Derby Day card. The Grade 2, $500,000 race will have two supporting stakes this year - the $75,000 Northern Spur for 3-year-olds, which is now a Breeders' Cup series race, and the $75,000 Instant Racing Breeders' Cup for 3-year-olds, which was run as the $50,000 Althea last year.

* Shawn Bergquist, one of the top jockey agents in the region, left racing in May to take time to be with his mother, who had cancer and has since died. Bergquist has returned at Oaklawn, representing riders Ronald Ardoin and Glen Murphy.

* Oaklawn will end its 5 1/2-furlong races at the regular finish line this meet instead of the auxiliary one like last year, when the races started at the same location as six-furlong races.

* Oaklawn's races will be shown on TVG, and will also be available on Racereplays.com.

* Oaklawn plans to offer night simulcasting on Fridays and Saturdays until April.