01/16/2008 12:00AM

Gate opens on Arkansas road to classics

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Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Oaklawn opens Friday for a 54-date meet.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - When people talk about Oaklawn Park, they talk about 3-year-olds.

Curlin, Lawyer Ron, Afleet Alex, and Smarty Jones have won the last four runnings of the Arkansas Derby. And since their Oaklawn appearances, the horses have gone on to win nine Grade 1 stakes, including a Kentucky Derby, three runnings of the Preakness, a Belmont Stakes, and last year's $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic.

The search for their successor will begin on Friday, when Oaklawn opens for a 54-date meet. It will be the start of a year of expansion for the track. For the first time since the 1990s, Oaklawn will have a four-day opening weekend. It will use the occasion to introduce a new stakes for 3-year-olds, the $50,000 Smarty Jones on Monday. Oaklawn is also bringing back a pair of sprint stakes for 3-year-olds this meet, both in April.

The one-mile Smarty Jones will complement Oaklawn's traditional two-turn stakes program for 3-year-olds: the Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest, a one-mile race Feb. 18; the Grade 2, $300,000 Rebel at 1 1/16 miles March 15; and the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby, a 1 1/8-mile race that will close out the meet on April 12.

"We think that the Southwest, the Rebel, and Arkansas Derby are as good a series of prep races for the Triple Crown as any in America," said Eric Jackson, general manager of Oaklawn.

The sentiment is a popular one, so it surprised many when the Arkansas Derby was not boosted to a Grade 1 in December, particularly with Curlin expected to be crowned the Horse of the Year during the Eclipse Awards ceremony on Monday. Still, officials at Oaklawn said progress was made with the Southwest receiving a grade this year, and the Rebel being upgraded to a Grade 2.

"Certainly, we would be very pleased if the Arkansas Derby were a Grade 1," said Jackson. "We obviously think it is a Grade 1 based on the last few years. But I think we just have to keep doing what we're doing and taking care of business, and those things will eventually work out. The main thing is to have grades on those races so that the earnings qualify for the Triple Crown."

Oaklawn's expansion this meet extends to its purse structure, which is set at a record $300,000 a day.

Fueling the increase is the gaming action at Oaklawn. There are 480 electronic gaming terminals and 29 electronic table games on the first floor, and they are projected to contribute $74,000 to $92,000 a day to purses this meet, said Jackson. Of the machines, 350 are terminals for Instant Racing, a parimutuel game that plays like a slot machine. It was introduced in 2000.

"We expect Instant Racing and electronic games of skill in 2008 to generate between $4 and $5 million for purses," said Jackson. "We're awfully close to the point that the limited gaming that we have now is close to generating a third of our purse distribution."

Jackson said Oaklawn's gaming area will be expanded later this year, with construction to begin after the meet ends. The added space would allow Oaklawn to double the number of terminals it has now.

The Arkansas Derby, which was raised to its current $1 million value in 2004, will be televised live this year on ESPN. It is the centerpiece of a $4.6 million stakes schedule, and part of the 35th annual Racing Festival of the South, when a cluster of major stakes are run over the final week of the meet. The festival opens April 5 with the running of both the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom and the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap.

The first stakes of the meet is Friday, and Gold Coyote, who ranked as one of last year's quickest 2-year-olds by virtue of the Beyer Speed Figure of 102 that he earned in July for a 5 1/2-furlong stakes win at Lone Star Park, will be making his 3-year-old debut in the $50,000 Dixieland. To be run at 5 1/2 furlongs, the Dixieland will be his first start since he finished fifth as the favorite in the Grade 3 Arlington-Washington Futurity. That race was run on Polytrack at Arlington on Sept. 1.

"He ran to the quarter pole and was empty, like a horse that didn't handle that surface," said Bret Calhoun, who trains Gold Coyote. "So right now, that's what we're thinking. We're just going to throw that race out and get started here Friday and then try to figure out where to go from here."

Ramsey Zimmerman has the mount on Gold Coyote, whose five rivals include multiple stakes winner Yonegwa.