01/09/2002 1:00AM

New Orleans tempting target for Oak Hall

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Oak Hall, who toppled a deep field in last Saturday night's $50,000 Sprint Handicap at Sam Houston Race Park in Houston, could make his next start in the Grade 2, $500,000 New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds on March 3, trainer Doyle Wardrop said.

Oak Hall also is under consideration for the $75,000 Dixie Poker Ace Handicap the same day at Fair Grounds.

"We're looking at the New Orleans Handicap pretty seriously right now," said Wardrop, who is based at Evangeline Downs in Lafayette, La.. "I feel like we've never had a better chance at it. Oak Hall is on top of his game. I really think he's never been as good as he is now."

In his last start before the seven-furlong Sprint Handicap, Oak Hall, an earner of $371,232, won the $150,000 Louisiana Champions Day Classic at Fair Grounds off a layoff of nearly two months, setting a stakes record for 1 1/8 miles, the same distance as the New Orleans Handicap.

Boots On Sunday, second to Oak Hall in the Sprint Handicap, is being pointed for the $50,000 King Cotton at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., on Feb. 2, said trainer Danny Pish. His long-term goal is that track's Grade 3, $150,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap on April 11.

Mr Ross nears seasonal debut

Mr Ross, one of the top handicap horses in the region, is on schedule to make his 7-year-old debut next weekend in either the the $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston on Jan. 19, or the $75,000 Diplomat Way Handicap at Fair Grounds in New Orleans on Jan. 20.

A win in the Maxxam would make Mr Ross, an earner of $950,015, a millionaire, but that won't be the deciding factor as to where he makes his next start. "We're waiting to look at the competition in both races," said trainer Donnie Von Hemel, who worked the horse five furlongs in 1:01.40 last Saturday at Oaklawn Park.

In his last start, Mr Ross finished third in the Grade 2 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 23. Don Pettinger will ride Mr Ross.

A first for Texas-based sire

Valid Expectations became the first Texas-based sire to lead a North American category when he topped the first crop sire list for 2001 with 27 winners and progeny earnings of $1.3 million, the Texas Thoroughbred Association announced Wednesday.

The nation's second-leading first-crop sire, Open Forum, is also based in Texas. He moved to the state from Florida at the close of last year's breeding season. Both stallions are based at Lane's End Texas/Huisache Farm near Hempstead.

Valid Expectations will stand for $12,500 in 2002, the highest stud fee in Texas.

* Midge Too, an earner of $500,883 who has won her last five starts, including the $25,000 San Felipe at Sam Houston on Dec. 22, will pass Saturday night's $50,000 Sam Houston Distaff in favor of the $50,000 American Beauty at Oaklawn on Feb. 9.

* Chicago-based jockey Larry Sterling Jr., is taking a working vacation at Sam Houston. In the region to visit his parents, who are based in Hot Springs, Ark., he will spend the next few weeks riding at Sam Houston.

* Sam Houston will raise the purses for its 10 remaining $25,000 stakes to $30,000 to meet the updated black-type requirements of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, said Sam Houston racing secretary Eric Johnston.

* Buck Harris, a popular jockey in the region who retired from riding last year, makes a comeback Friday night at Sam Houston.