01/31/2002 12:00AM

Nice spot to play claim game

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Oaklawn Park has a reputation as a good place to claim horses, a place to restock the barn for the coming year. A mix of stables from different circuits, as well as horses who have been freshened since the fall, makes shopping a popular pastime at Oaklawn.

Last year, 197 horses were claimed during the 52-day meet, accounting for $2.7 million in commerce among stables. That's an average of almost four claims a card, which is just what happened here opening weekend.

During the first three days of the meet, 12 horses were claimed for total receipts of $226,250. The top-priced acquisition was C.L. Rib, a $50,000 claim by defending training champ Cole Norman.

Norman also led all trainers in claims last weekend with three. All were on behalf of Ken Murphy, who was the leading owner last year at both Lone Star Park and Louisiana Downs.

"I have 10 to 12 horses for Mr. Murphy, and he'd like to leave here with 20," said Norman.

Joe Petalino, who won the training title at Oaklawn in 2000, said the record purse structure this meet has drawn a nice pool of stables from which to claim. "There's a lot of new people, and a lot of people who have come back who haven't been here in quite a while," said Petalino. "It should be a real competitive meet, and one that will give your claiming trainers some new stock to claim."

Chindi gets speed to chase

Trainer Steve Hobby is hopeful the late-running Chindi, this region's version of Silky Sullivan, will have enough speed to sink his teeth into when he makes his 8-year-old debut Saturday in the $50,000 King Cotton at Oaklawn Park.

Chindi has not raced since he finished a troubled fourth in the Grade 3, $100,000 Ack Ack Handicap, which went in track-record time at Churchill Downs on Oct. 28. Hobby gave him a planned break after the race, and is pleased with how he has trained for his return.

In his final prep, Chindi worked five furlongs in 1:03.60 under jockey Tim Doocy.

"His work was all in the finish," said Hobby. "He got the last quarter in 23 seconds. He worked like he does when he runs well."

Chindi is part of a geriatric crowd of sprinters in this region. Others include Sand Ridge, a 7-year-old who will also start in the King Cotton, and Fair Grounds regulars Bonapaw, 6, Abajo, 6, and Crucible, 7. The senior statesman of the Midwest, Hobby said, is 10-year-old Bet on Sunshine, who is based in Kentucky.

"I've always thought sprinting was hard on horses, but they all just keep running," said Hobby.

Pettinger starts meet at 50 percent

Jockey Don Pettinger is off to a fast start at Oaklawn, where he won with his first four mounts of the meet last week. In total, he has won four races from eight starters to enter into a three-way tie atop the standings with Luis Quinonez, who rode 15 horses last week, and James Lopez, who rode 26.

Pettinger, who won three races from three mounts opening day, including the $50,000 Dixie Belle, tends to ride more quality than quantity. "Throughout my career, I haven't been one who rode a lot of horses in a year," he said.

He does, however, seem to be on the right horses. One of his regular mounts is the Oaklawn-based Mr Ross, who became a millionaire two weeks ago with his win in the $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston Race Park.

Other riders off to a fast start at Oaklawn include Joe Johnson, who was 2 for 3 over opening weekend.