Updated on 09/17/2011 10:47AM

More cash, new blood at Hot Springs

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Horses during training hours at Oaklawn Park, where a 55-day meet featuring increased purses gets underway Friday.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Although cold weather is threatening to force the cancellation of Friday's Oaklawn Park opener, the caliber of racing here this season figures to be red-hot because of a record purse structure that has lured almost 30 new stables and more than a dozen new riders to Hot Springs.

Oaklawn, which will run 55 days through April 12, plans to offer $235,000 to $240,000 a day in overnight purses this season. The track's $3.3 million stakes schedule gets under way Friday with the $50,000 Dixie Belle, a six-furlong race for 3-year-old fillies that drew a field of eight, including Jodys Deelite, who last year finished third behind Atlantic Ocean in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Shane Sellers will be in from Fair Grounds to ride for trainer Dallas Stewart.

A strong racing program will be Oaklawn's attraction this season. The track has lured 27 barns to town that were not here last year, among them trainers John Veitch, Noel Hickey, Blackie Huffman, Robert Klesaris, Scooter Dickey, Joe Woodard, Joseph Smith, Derron Miller, Mike Tomlinson, and Larry Jones.

"It looks like with the trainers that are here, we ought to have a good meet," said Cole Norman, who will be bidding for his third consecutive training title at Oaklawn. "I'm glad. They will help fill races, and the better horses will give us more to claim; something for our money."

Norman heads a strong cast of regulars at the meet that will include Steve Asmussen, the nation's winningest trainer in 2002; Stanley Roberts, Donnie Von Hemel, Kenny Smith, David Vance, Lynn Whiting, and Robert Holthus, a nine-time training title winner who is in his 50th season at Oaklawn.

Workout tabs this meet have been unusually long, and director of racing Pat Pope said as of Wednesday morning, there were 1,868 sets of foal papers registered with his office, 93 more sets than last year at this time.

The purse structure, which is up from $224,000 a day last year and $212,000 in 2001, is the driving force behind the renewed interest in Oaklawn. Pope said maiden special weight races will be worth $30,000, up from $26,000 a year ago, while the track's bottom purse has been boosted from $6,500 to $7,500.

"I believe the last two years, we've seen an upward trend of racing in this area, and especially at Oaklawn," Pope said. "I think word of mouth has gotten out that when you come here, it's very competitive, but you get to run. You get your horses in. That's a big part of it, along with the purse structure, of course."

The highlight of the meet is the Racing Festival of the South, which features at least one stakes race a day from April 5 to April 12. The $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap, to be run as a Grade 2 this year, and the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom, which last year was won by Azeri, will share a card on April 5.

The Festival, and the meet, conclude with the Grade 2, $500,000 Arkansas Derby.

In the Dixie Belle, which is the featured race on a nine-race card, Jodys Deelite will be making her first start back from a layoff of nearly two months. Her chief rivals include Explosive Beauty, who finished third last out to the undefeated Perfect Wave in an entry-level allowance race at Fair Grounds on Dec. 27.

She adds blinkers for this trip, and Norman has given the mount to Jamie Theriot.

Another to watch is Mekko Hokte, who has not raced since her impressive win in the $30,000 Delta Miss at Louisiana Downs on Sept. 29.

* Oaklawn officials will be keeping a close eye on the weather. Forecasters are calling for freezing temperatures overnight on Wednesday, and as a result, track maintenance crews plan to work the track through the night. The forecast for Thursday is for a low of 12 degrees and a high of 32 degrees. The high for Friday is expected to be 35.

Oaklawn, which was open for training Wednesday, has not had to cancel an opening day card because of weather since 1997.

Post time for the first race is 1 p.m.