03/31/2004 12:00AM

A girl named Mike


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Forty years ago, on March 26, 1964, the Arkansas House of Representatives told the good folks of Hot Springs that their days were done as a wide-open, illegal gambling mecca. The town that once rivaled Las Vegas would have to make do with its natural attractions, its steaming mineral baths, and its one, lonely source of legal gambling revenue, its racetrack.

That track - Oaklawn Park - is still the only game in town, and the game revs up this weekend when Oaklawn's Racing Festival of the South commences with the appearance of the 2002 Horse of the Year, Azeri, in the Apple Blossom Handicap.

The Festival, and the Oaklawn meet, conclude April 10 with the $1 million Arkansas Derby. But even when the horses move on, the town of Hot Springs soldiers on, transformed these days into a family-oriented resort far removed from its days as a haven for notorious mobsters.

If the stories aren't true, they should be. It's said that Pretty Boy Floyd holed up in a cabin on Lake Hamilton, and that Al Capone had permanent digs at the Arlington Hotel. Owney "The Killer" Madden, an aging gangster who "retired" to Hot Springs in the late 1930's, roamed the streets for 30 years in the guise of a kindly old gent, when everyone knew his prime job was providing sanctuary for gunsels on the lam.

Ancient history now, sanitized for current consumption and shoved deep into the background as modern Hot Springs cultivates its image as a gentrified Southern destination spa. After all, the billboard on State Highway 70 leading into town says it's the "Boyhood Home of Bill Clinton," not the "Last Hideout of Lucky Luciano." Which it also was.

An open mind, then, is required. First impressions are what counts. Down toward the southern end of Central Avenue, Oaklawn Park commands the same kind of looming neighborhood presence as Chicago's Wrigley Field.

The grandstand turnstiles are barely a dozen steps from the sidewalk. Patrons can stand at the rim of the indoor paddock and glance over their shoulders at the traffic on Central Avenue, or the action at the Longshot Bar, where horseplayers once dashed to call their bookies, then headed back across the street to watch the race.

"This place was Jay Cronley's inspiration for his book, 'Good Vibes,' " said Oaklawn institution Terry Wallace, who serves as both announcer and director of media relations. "They turned the book into a movie you probably heard of - 'Let It Ride.' "

The fit is perfect. Cronley's racetrack characters would have been cozy as clams when Hot Springs ruled as the Vegas of the South. And no matter how modern consciousness attempts to sugarcoat the past, the gut feeling remains that anything can happen at Oaklawn Park, and probably has.

It should come as no surprise then, that this visitor's first afternoon at Oaklawn Park will be remembered primarily for a girl named Mike.

The first race of the day last Saturday was a maiden claimer won by a filly named Lady V Eight who paid $141.60 on a $2 bet. This upheaval of form required at least a passing glance at the postrace ceremonies, which included her jockey, one Michal Fetters, and her trainer, Ralph Eason. One of them had a long red ponytail.

Michal "Mikey" Fetters is the daughter of Michael "Mike" Fetters, assistant trainer to Terry Brennan and father of an older daughter whose name - you guessed it - is Michele. Michal's mother, Betty, is an Oaklawn clocker.

"My dad," said Michal, "was determined to have a boy."

Fetters was one three woman riding in that first race - along with Greta Kuntzweiler and Jessica Endres - but she was the only one who had to stand there and watch her mount flop around in the paddock like a Lake Hamilton bass before the call for riders up.

"I'd never laid eyes on the filly before that day," Fetters said the next morning. "I tried adding up the lengths she'd been beat and couldn't, but I've always said if I can guide 'em, I'll ride 'em. I decided that if she had any talent at all, I was going right to the front."

So she did, but not before Lady V Eight tried to roll over and play possum. Finally, after a shaky leg up from the trainer, Fetters was on her way.

"She got me a little mad," Fetters said. "And once you get me mad, I will ride a lion."

Somehow, they got to the gate in one piece, broke on top and went ding-dong on the pace between horses. To Michal's amazement, the filly hung tough and entered deep stretch with a daylight lead, then held on to win by a head.

"Usually, when they win at big odds like that, they're out on the lead all alone and get brave," Fetters said. "I was really impressed. She was game for everything."

The payoff did not challenge the Oaklawn mark of $350.80, set in 1950. But it was certainly a Fetters family mark. Mike Fetters watched the race from the backstretch viewing stand, located near the three-quarter pole. He saw the start, but not the finish.

"Did you win it?" he yelled to his daughter as she pulled up on the turn.

"Of course I did." she replied. "Was there ever a doubt?"