04/03/2002 1:00AM

Mr Ross, Crafty Shaw keep home fires burning


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - A local horse has not won the Grade 1, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap since Opening Verse in 1990, but this could be the year the shippers' streak ends. On Saturday, Mr Ross and Crafty Shaw will make the strongest representation of Oaklawn Park-based horses to start in the race in years.

Both bring strong credentials into the Oaklawn Handicap, which for the first time will share a program with the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap. Mr Ross, the 118-pound starting highweight for the 1 1/8-mile Oaklawn Handicap, is a winner of 17 races and $1,070,016, while Crafty Shaw earned a 113 Beyer Speed Figure for his win in the Grade 3, $75,000 Essex Handicap on Feb. 23.

A third local, Remington Rock, was withdrawn from consideration Wednesday. He had been pointing for the Oaklawn Handicap on the heels of his sharp second-place finish to Mr Ross last out in the Grade 3, $100,000 Razorback Handicap.

"Overall, we've got a real solid group of horses here this year," said Donnie Von Hemel, who trains the 7-year-old Mr Ross.

Crafty Shaw, a 4-year-old, has brought depth to the local handicap division this year. He dazzled with his powerful front-running win in the Essex, and could rebound in a big way in the Oaklawn Handicap after finishing fourth as the favorite last out in the Razorback.

"He ran well for a lot of horses. Getting beat a length and a quarter in that race is a good race, but we know it wasn't him," said Pete Vestal, who trains Crafty Shaw. "So we're looking for the old boy to show up [Saturday]."

Crafty Shaw had won four straight races going into the Essex, and is training like he plans to start a new win streak Saturday. In his final prep for the Oaklawn Handicap last Friday he worked five furlongs in a bullet 58.60 seconds, galloping out six furlongs in 1:11.80.

"The breeze last Friday was one of the most impressive I've ever witnessed - not just that it was done in a fast time, but the way it was done," said Vestal. "The way he picked it up as he went along, and got stronger as the breeze progressed, that's what impressed me. He just got stronger at every pole."

Leading rider James Lopez will ride Crafty Shaw, while Don Pettinger has the mount on Mr Ross.

Peak race for Bowman's Band?

Bowman's Band, a lightly raced colt who won the first three races of his career last year, including the $75,000 Summing at The Meadowlands, could fire a peak race Saturday in the Oaklawn Handicap when he makes his third start back from a three-month layoff. In his comeback Jan. 24, he finished a strong second to Dream Run in a seven-furlong allowance at Gulfstream Park.

He returned to win a two-turn allowance at the track Feb. 25, and has since trained well for the Oaklawn Handicap.

"We feel he's doing well right now, and felt it's time for him to step up to the plate," said M.R. Matz, who trains Bowman's Band for Martin Schwartz. "He's got a good record, and a big heart. He wants to win, and we hope he will show that on Saturday."

Matz also hopes Bowman's Band will get a favorable pace scenario. "It doesn't look like there will be any shortage of speed in the race, and the nice part is he can rate just off the pace," said Matz, who has given the mount to Edgar Prado.

Bowman's Band was one of six horses who arrived at Oaklawn by plane on Wednesday morning for weekend stakes. Also on board was Miss Linda, in for the Apple Blossom; Graeme Hall and This Fleet Is Due, in for the Oaklawn Handicap; and Spanish Glitter, who arrived for the $100,000 Carousel Breeders' Cup, to be run Sunday.

* Fleet Renee, who shipped to Oaklawn last Saturday, breezed four furlongs from the gate in 51.60 seconds. Trainer Michael Dickinson will be in town Saturday to saddle the filly in the Apple Blossom. "It's a tough race," said Dickinson. Also probable for the Apple Blossom are Azeri, Miss Linda, Spain, Affluent, and Verruma.