01/18/2006 1:00AM

Looking for a banner year

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Sunny Taylor/Coady Photography
Stall requests have soared this year at Oaklawn, largely because of a shortened Fair Grounds meet.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Oaklawn Park has been on an incredible run the past several years, both business-wise and with the quality of its racing, thanks to horses like Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex. But this year might be the track's best yet. Oaklawn, which begins its 102nd season Friday, will have record purses, a souped-up 3-year-old series, expanded wagering options, and legions of horses to call on during its 56-day meet.

Purses are budgeted at $275,000 a day, up from $260,000 a year ago. The first route stakes for 3-year-olds, the Southwest on Feb. 20, has been increased in value from $100,000 to $250,000. And the Grade 3 Rebel, the final local prep for the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby, is now worth $300,000 after carrying a purse of $250,000.

For horseplayers, Oaklawn will introduce a pick four and has added two superfectas to its wagering lineup. Large fields are expected to be the norm this meet, as Oaklawn is "overrun with horses," said Eric Jackson, the track's general manager.

There have been stall requests for more than 2,800 horses this meet, said Pat Pope, the track's racing secretary. That's up from 2,200 requests last year, and almost double the number of horses that can be housed on the 1,500-stall backstretch.

The surge in stall requests is driven by the fact Fair Grounds is running an abbreviated meet at Louisiana Downs this year, which concludes Sunday.

"It's going to be more of everything this meet," said trainer Cole Norman, who is chasing his sixth straight title at Oaklawn. "There's going to be more horses, more owners, more trainers, more jockeys, and more agents. It's going to be a tough meet. Real tough."

The Arkansas Derby, which has been won by Afleet Alex and Smarty Jones the past two years, will be held on closing day, April 15, and is the richest race on a $4.5 million stakes schedule. The stakes program, coupled with a purse distribution that puts maiden special weight races at $32,000 and open allowances as high as $45,000, has made Oaklawn a logical destination for a number of horsemen who would normally winter at Fair Grounds into March.

Trainers Tom Amoss, Bobby Barnett, Bret Calhoun, Al Stall Jr., Michael Stidham, and Ronny Werner are among the Fair Grounds transplants expected for the meet. New faces making up the riding colony include Robby Albarado, Calvin Borel, Earlie Fires, James Graham, Donnie and Cody Meche, and Larry Melancon.

Local training centers are accommodating overflow horses, as is Louisiana Downs, which is three hours from Oaklawn and which will remain open for training into the spring. There could be as many as 1,000 horses based at Louisiana Downs near Shreveport.

"With the change in the Fair Grounds schedule, and all those horses in north Louisiana, we're probably going to see the best racing we ever have, day in and day out," said Jackson.

Oaklawn's simulcast signal will be the premier offering being beamed out of the region this winter.

"I think we'll be very disappointed if our business is not up offtrack, particularly since our signal will now be going into large parts of Canada for the first time on a full-card basis," said Jackson.

Earlier this year, Oaklawn was approved for net-pool pricing, which enables countries with different takeout rates to participate in certain pools in the United States. Oaklawn's signal will go into sites in Canada, such as Woodbine near Toronto. Oaklawn has also received approval to place a 10-cent minimum on superfectas, and that is not all a dime will buy at Oaklawn.

For opening weekend, the track has cut soft drink prices to 10 cents, and it will offer its popular corned beef sandwiches for just 50 cents. Opening day will also offer a first glimpse of some of the 3-year-old talent on the grounds in the $50,000 Dixieland.

comes into the 5 1/2-furlong race off a win in the $81,000 Sugar Bowl at the Fair Grounds meet. Trained by Steve Asmussen, he has won 3 of 4 career starts. Asmussen won this race last year with Razor.

His chief threats include , a 12 1/4-length entry-level allowance winner last out for trainer John Servis.