01/22/2003 1:00AM

Happily bucking winter meet trends


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - It's not easy to change direction after 99 years, but that's what seems to be happening at Oaklawn Park.

The track, which had experienced declining attendance and handle in the second half of the 1990's, reversed course last year in both categories. This came at a time when other winter meets, such as Gulfstream Park and Fair Grounds, were down from the previous year.

On the strength of that season, Oaklawn, which first opened in 1905, will be able to offer record purses of $235,000 to $240,000 a day during its 55-day meet that opens Friday.

The purse structure has brought new trainers and jockeys by the truckload, and their presence, coupled with the fact that simulcast business this month is up over the same period last year, has officials cautiously optimistic that they can build on what was achieved in 2002: an 11 percent increase in live handle to a record $4.8 million a day, and a 6 percent increase in daily attendance to 11,980.

"Last year was up across the board in every statistical category," said Eric Jackson, general manager of Oaklawn. "It was a very satisfying year for us."

In addition to the increases in handle, the track also benefited from its first full year with a permanent tax break that it was granted in 2001. Purses were raised three times during the meet, and attendance for the Arkansas Derby soared to 52,122.

All the while, handle on Instant Racing, a parimutuel game that plays like a slot machine, continued to grow, reaching a record $30 million in 2002.

Oaklawn Park still must overcome a challenging business climate, however. The competition from casinos in Mississippi and Louisiana, is here to stay, and the growth of racing in neighboring Texas and Oklahoma has taken away customers who used to attend the races here. The lack of offtrack betting in Arkansas limits the off-season simulcast market to those who live in the Hot Springs area.

"The Cella family overpaid purses more than $4 million during the last half of the 90's, over and above what our contract called for," said Jackson. "That has never happened in American racing, period, and if we were a publicly held company they would have fired management because that's dividends, that's bottom line dollars, that's profits.

"But Charles Cella took it out of his pockets to try and keep racing going on at a high level in Arkansas, hoping that in time the tide would shift and things would start going our way. We're hopeful maybe 2002 was that point."

If so, this grand old track will have good reason to celebrate it's upcoming 100th birthday.