04/07/2004 11:00PM

Kentucky on the horizon

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - In a year of inconsistent performances by 3-year-olds, Smarty Jones has done everything asked of him. Perfect in five starts, he appears to have just two more hurdles to clear Saturday in the Grade 2, $1 million at Oaklawn Park before heading to the Kentucky Derby.

The first is distance. Smarty Jones will be racing over 1 1/8 miles for the first time, and that is often the distance at which horses start to separate themselves.

The other hurdle is graded earnings. Smarty Jones will be making his graded stakes debut in the Arkansas Derby and will likely need a first- or second-place finish, worth $600,000 and $200,000, respectively, to get into what is expected to be a full gate for the Kentucky Derby.

Smarty Jones deserves to be in that field. Since launching his career in a six-furlong maiden race at Philadelphia Park last November, Smarty Jones has improved with each start. His last race was his best, as he simply annihilated his competition in the $200,000 Rebel Stakes.

With the win, Smarty Jones became the only 3-year-old eligible for a $5 million Centennial bonus from Oaklawn. Offered to underscore the 100th anniversary of the track, the bonus will be awarded to the horse who can sweep the Rebel, Arkansas Derby, and Kentucky Derby. Along with the $5 million Visa Triple Crown bonus, it is the richest bonus in racing.

"If he does get the bonus it will be great for the horse, because that will put him in an elite group," said John Servis, who trains Smarty Jones for Roy and Patricia Chapman.

The value of the purse for the Arkansas Derby was doubled this year, and that helped draw a competitive field of 11 horses. The race is also the richest of three Kentucky Derby preps being run Saturday, and the third leg of a national pick three linking those races, the others being the Grade 1, $750,000 Wood Memorial and the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass.

Smarty Jones's rivals in the Arkansas Derby include Borrego, second last out in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby; Mr. Jester, who has career earnings of more than $750,000 and is working like he's ready to bounce back from a flat effort in the Rebel; Purge, runnerup in the Rebel for trainer Todd Pletcher; and Shadowland, who suffered through a troubled trip in the Louisiana Derby and gets the return services of Pat Day.

Smarty Jones will be favored on the strength of his Rebel win. He covered the 1 1/16 miles in a razor-sharp 1:42 and earned a career-best 106 Beyer Speed Figure.

It was a powerful victory for Smarty Jones, a son of Elusive Quality and a stakes-winning daughter of Smile, whose pedigree seems slanted toward sprint distances.

"If you asked me about [a mile and an eighth] three months ago, I'd say it's definitely in question," said Servis. "Right now, I'd be very surprised if he doesn't handle a mile and an eighth. The way he trains, he just doesn't act like a horse that's going to be topped out at a mile and a sixteenth."

Stewart Elliott, who has been aboard for each of Smarty Jones's starts, has the mount Saturday. The two should be close to the pace, and the chief threat late could be Borrego.

"I would think that there is going to be some speed in there, and hopefully we'll have dead aim on them in the stretch," said Beau Greely, who trains Borrego.

Borrego closed from well back in the Louisiana Derby and should eat up the additional sixteenth of a mile he gets to work with Saturday.

"The more he gets going, he's kind of like a steamroller. He builds up momentum, and that's why I think more distance is better for him," Greely said. "Plus, he's out of a Strike the Gold mare and by El Prado, so you would think he wants to run all day."

Victor Espinoza has the mount.

The Arkansas Derby will go as the ninth of 12 races, with post set for 4:44 p.m. Central. The race will be televised live on NBC. There are showers forecast for early Saturday morning, and the high will be in the mid-60's. The Arkansas Derby, which will be the richest race ever run in the state, is part of the final card of the Oaklawn meet. A crowd of more than 50,000 is expected.