02/03/2004 1:00AM

Hartlage, Johnson tough team


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Trainer Gary Hartlage and jockey Joe Johnson have combined to win with four of nine starters this meet, and they have two good chances to pad their stats Thursday.

Hartlage and Johnson, who have worked together since 1987, will team with possible favorite Southern Stepper in the first race and leading contender Contested in the sixth, an entry-level allowance for 4-year-olds and upward. Both are returning from layoffs, but both have won at Oaklawn.

Hartlage excels with his comebackers and route horses, such as Southern Stepper and Contested. Hartlage's four wins through Tuesday rank him second in the standings to Bob Holthus.

Johnson has ridden all nine of Hartlage's starters and also won a fifth race for another client to tie for third in the rider standings, with five wins from 22 starters through Tuesday.

"Everything's been running so good," said Johnson. "I hope it just keeps going."

Contested faces a competitive group in the sixth race, a 1 1/16-mile allowance worth $32,000. He is making his first start since Nov. 29, when he was fifth in a starter allowance at Churchill Downs.

That race came over 1 1/4 miles, and the cutback in distance Thursday should suit him. One of his best recent races came at 1 1/16 miles, when he was second in a starter allowance at Churchill Downs.

Contested is a closer who depends on pace, and he could get the fractions he needs up front, with the quick K.J.'s Gold situated on the rail and Master of the Sea and Uncanny stretching out around two turns after racing in sprints. Contested's main task could be running down Defrere's Vixen and Imperial Theatre.

Southern Stepper is spotted to win in the first race, a $10,000 claimer for fillies and mares going 1 1/16 miles. In her last start, she finished sixth against $30,000 claimers going a mile at Churchill Downs in November.

A quick start at Oaklawn is nothing new for Hartlage and Johnson. They won with two of three starters the first week of racing in 2001. And in 1997 Hartlage won with six of his first seven starters.

Johnson went to work for Hartlage as a hotwalker in 1987. He became an apprentice jockey in 1989. One of the best horses he has ridden for Hartlage is Judge T C, a Grade 2 stakes winner of more than $800,000 who is now among the leading stallions in New York.