Updated on 09/17/2011 9:47AM

Jockeying for top position


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - James Lopez, last year's leading rider at Oaklawn Park, will begin the meet on Friday with a larger client base than he had last year. Lopez realizes that he will need the added business to successfully defend his title against a deep rider colony that includes many newcomers, among them former Oaklawn leading rider Jon Court and Ronald Ardoin, a winner of more than 5,000 races.

"I don't think it's going to be a dominating meet, where one rider wins all the races," said Lopez, 24. "Its going to be pretty spread out, and it's going to be a good race. It's going to be exciting to watch."

Lopez won his first Oaklawn title last year with 59 wins. Among the horses that helped him along the way were eventual Breeders' Cup Classic runner-up Medaglia d'Oro, who won his maiden at Oaklawn before being sold, and stakes winners Crafty Shaw and Spanish Glitter.

This meet, Lopez is hoping for more of the same. "I have some really nice horses to campaign through this meet with," he said. "I think I'm a lot stronger this year than I was last year, business-wise. A lot more of my clientele is here."

That's partly due to this meet's purse structure. Lopez spends most of the year in Kentucky, and a purse increase at Oaklawn has brought more of his regular stables to Hot Springs. It has also brought more competition.

Court, 42, is back at Oaklawn for the first time in two years after spending last winter at Gulfstream Park. He was the leading jockey here in 2001.

Another "new" veteran this year is Ardoin, 45, who last rode at Oaklawn on a regular basis in 1991. He rode the first day of the meet that year, retired, and has since made a comeback and reached the 5,000-win plateau. One of his biggest victories came at Oaklawn in 1996, when he won the Arkansas Derby with Zarb's Magic.

Other new riders here are Jamie Theriot, Glenn Corbett, Ken Shino, C.H. Marquez, Jr., Greta Kuntzweiler, Abel Castellano, Glen Murphy, and Brian Long.

Theriot, 23, was among the top 10 riders at Fair Grounds before moving his tack here at the request of two-time defending training champion Cole Norman.

Theriot, a past riding champ at Evangeline Downs, started to team with Norman on a regular basis last season at Louisiana Downs. He will ride a large number of horses this meet for Norman, who also plans to use Anthony Lovato, the second-leading rider here last year, and Lopez.

"I got my first big break with Cole back in 1998," said Lopez, who won the title that year at Louisiana Downs.

Among those riders returning from last meet are Terry Thompson - who was leading the Oaklawn standings in March when he was sidelined with a fractured thumb - Tim Doocy; Don Pettinger, Luis Quinonez, and Rodney Trader.

Crafty Shaw points for Essex

One of the top handicap horses on the grounds is Crafty Shaw, who has not raced since he finished second to Lido Palace in the Grade 2, $400,000 Clark Handicap on Nov. 29.

He could make his comeback in a race he won last year, the Grade 3, $75,000 Essex Handicap on Feb. 22.

"He got a month vacation after the Clark Handicap," said Pete Vestal, who trains Crafty Shaw. "We turned him out. We just wanted to give him a little R and R."

Vestal's goal is to run Crafty Shaw, a winner of nine races and $499,254, through the handicap series in Hot Springs that culminates with the $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap on April 5.

The horse was sold to Oaklawn president Charles Cella last May. This meet Cella will try to get his first stakes win at Oaklawn.

"He's doing great," Vestal said of Crafty Shaw. "There's every reason to believe his 5-year-old year could be his best."

Redder dirt

Oaklawn has adjusted the percentages of clay and silt in its racing surface, giving it a redder appearance than last year.

"Early in the season last year we ended up with a very sandy racetrack and we had to scramble around to find more silt and clay to put in the racetrack because it had washed out," said Eric Jackson, general manager of Oaklawn.

"This year, our track consultant, Roy Favret, decided to start out with more silt and clay in the racetrack, figuring when some of it washed out we'd end up with a pretty good racetrack.

"The material should tighten up very nicely."

- Oaklawn will end its 5 1/2-furlong races at the regular finish line this year instead of the auxiliary one like last season, when they started at the same location as the six-furlong races. "We made a [starting gate] pad, and now they'll end at the regular wire," said Pat Pope, director of racing for Oaklawn. "The stewards and riders like the longer stretch."

- In a change to the entry schedule, Thursday cards will be drawn 72 hours in advance this meet, beginning on Monday, Feb. 3.

- Oaklawn has rejoined the National Thoroughbred Racing Association for 2003.