02/05/2002 1:00AM

Holthus opens with a hot hand


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Trainer Bob Holthus has come out firing this season at Oaklawn Park. A nine-time training champ here, he has won five races over the first six days of the meet to rank second in the standings, one win behind leader Cole Norman.

Holthus, who has achieved that success with just 12 starters, recorded his biggest victory of the young season last Saturday when Kings Command stormed to a 2 1/4-length win in the $50,000 King Cotton Stakes.

In addition to the five wins, Holthus's horses have finished second in five other races and third in another to give the trainer an exceptional in-the-money record this meet. He also has had tremendous success with horses returning from long layoffs, as three of his five winners last raced in either May or July.

"It's been a lucky start," said Holthus, who will start Suzanne's Flying in the featured eighth race Thursday. "The horses have run well."

Holthus added that unseasonably warm weather in December and January helped his stable.

"We've been fortunate with the weather, being able to train every day," he said.

Last year, local horsemen lost 28 days of training because of inclement weather in Hot Springs.

Holthus has several young horses coming up this season, and hopes that one of them will fill the void left by the recent retirements of Grade 2 Humana Distaff winner Ruby Surprise, who earned $752,697, and The Happy Hopper, a multiple stakes winner of $801,279.

He also is excited about Kings Command, who is being pointed for the $50,000 Hot Springs Stakes on March 29.

Quinonez tied atop standings

Jockey Luis Quinonez, who was aboard Kings Command in the King Cotton, off to a good start this meet. The rider had won seven races from 29 mounts through Tuesday to share the top spot in the standings with Anthony Lovato.

"It's been like playing cards," Quinonez said of his meet. "Sometimes it goes your way."

Quinonez is modest. His talent has been evidenced by the fact that his average winner has paid $15.80.

A five-time title winner at Canterbury Park in Minnesota, Quinonez has been riding at Oaklawn for the past four years, and last year finished seventh in the standings behind Calvin Borel.

"This has been the best start for me at this meet," said Quinonez, who credits longtime agent, Gerry DiLaura, for the fast start. "We've been winning some nice races."

The nicest was with Kings Command in the King Cotton. "I still get goosebumps when I watch the replay," said the rider. "The way he finished down the lane . . . as they say, 'He smoked 'em.' "

Quinonez, who has won with both of the horses he has ridden for Holthus this meet, will try to remain perfect for that trainer Thursday when the two team together in the seventh race with El Destiny.

Soon, there will be another Quinonez in the saddle. Belen Quinonez, Luis's 22-year-old brother, is expected to start riding professionally this summer at Canterbury. "I was 23 or 24 when I started riding, and I won my first race there," said Luis, who is 35.

Holy Gem stretches out

Holy Gem, who has finished first or second in five of his six career starts, makes the move to two turns Thursday in the ninth race, a one-mile conditioned allowance worth $29,000.

The race has drawn eight, including Warhead, a sharp second in optional claiming company Jan. 26, and Secret Session, who in his last two-turn start finished second in the $75,000 Governor's Cup Handicap.

In his final prep for the demands of the unfamiliar distance, Holy Gem worked four furlongs in a bullet 47 seconds.

"He's built like a sprinter and has an awful lot of natural speed, but he rates kind enough and I think he may get two turns," said trainer Pete Vestal, who has given the mount to James Lopez.