01/19/2005 12:00AM

Fresh material for an encore

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Potential star 3-year-olds based at Oaklawn this season include Afleet Alex (above) and Rockport Harbor.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Even though Smarty Jones will be a tough act to follow, Oaklawn Park appears positioned for an outstanding meet this year. Some of the country's best 3-year-olds are already stabled on the grounds, and a host of new stables are here, including divisions from Michael Gill, the leading North American owner in wins and earnings the past two years, and Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

Oaklawn, which begins a 55-date meet Friday, rode a wave of excitement last year with Smarty Jones. He swept the track's three route stakes for 3-year-olds, and went on to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. For his success in the Rebel, Arkansas Derby, and Kentucky Derby, he earned a $5 million Centennial Bonus that Oaklawn offered to commemorate its 100th anniversary and became a favorite with race fans throughout North America.

"It's certainly going to be a difficult challenge to follow up on last year," said Eric Jackson, general manager of Oaklawn. "[Last year] was such a good year, with the centennial, Smarty Jones, and the weather was great. Everything went our way. Hopefully, we can use 2004 as a springboard to success in 2005."

There is not a bonus this year, but Oaklawn has kept the purse of the Arkansas Derby at $1 million for the second straight year. That decision, coupled with the success of Smarty Jones, has helped make the track a hotbed for 3-year-olds. Among those bedded down at Oaklawn are Afleet Alex, winner of the Grade 1 Hopeful; Rockport Harbor, undefeated winner of the Grade 2 Remsen; and Greater Good, winner of the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club.

"It's neat for us to have so many good 3-year-olds on the grounds this early in the year," said Jackson. "I really think [the success of Smarty Jones] probably sent a message that this is not a bad place to go and prepare for the Triple Crown. The weather is good, the crowds are big, the atmosphere is a lot of fun, and the track surface is awfully good. Put it all together and you have a nice route to Kentucky."

Gill, whose horses will be trained by Tim Hooper, and Lukas, are two of 28 stables new to Hot Springs. They join an established list of trainers that include Cole Norman, who is seeking his fifth straight training title at Oaklawn.

"The top 15 in races or money won are all back," said Pat Pope, racing secretary at Oaklawn.

John McKee, who in his first meet here won the riding title last year, heads a colony that includes newcomer Jeremy Rose and Calvin Borel, who returns to ride on a regular basis for the first time since 2002.

The draw for most horsemen is a record daily purse structure of $250,000. Oaklawn's stakes schedule is worth $4.1 million, with the annual Racing Festival of the South, which features at least one stakes a program for the final week of racing, set to run from April 9-16. In addition to the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby, highlights of the Festival include the Grade 1 Apple Blossom, the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap, and the Grade 2 Fantasy.

The $50,000 Dixieland for 3-year-olds will open the meet, and it has drawn a strong favorite in Sir Laff Alot. The Dixieland, a 5 1/2-furlong race, is being run for the first time since 1998 because Oaklawn will have 13 weekends of racing this year instead of 12, said Pope.

Sir Laff Alot last raced on Oct. 29 at Keeneland, winning a 6 1/2-furlong entry-level allowance and earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 95. The second-place finisher from the race, Crimson Stag, returned to win stakes in his next two starts at Fair Grounds.

Sir Laff Alot has been training in Hot Springs, and has turned in two bullets, including a five-furlong move in 59.80 seconds on Jan. 10.

"He's had several good works," said Bob Holthus, who trains Sir Laff Alot and who swept the meet's first three stakes in 2004.

McKee has the mount for Fly Racing.

The forecast for Friday is sunny skies and a high of 61 degrees. Last year Oaklawn drew a crowd of 25,137 for its opening program.