01/13/2009 12:00AM

No vacancy on the backstretch


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - With the stable area nearing capacity, work tabs growing longer, and wet-paint signs dotting the grandstand, Oaklawn Park looks ready to reopen. The track's 105th season begins Friday, and as of Tuesday morning there were close to 1,400 horses on the grounds, according to Oaklawn racing secretary Pat Pope.

"By Thursday, we should be at 1,500," he said - the maximum number of horses that can be housed on the backstretch.

The final rush of stables is mostly coming in from Chicago, and will include trainers Frank Kirby, who is new to the meet, and Marco Salazar, Doug Matthews, Mike Campbell, and Moises Yanez. Brian Williamson, another Chicago mainstay, is settled in at Oaklawn.

"With the closing of Hawthorne, we're expecting five more outfits," Pope said. "They said they're putting them on the van. Some of the trainers I have left from Louisiana and Kentucky also have vans coming in. So, I believe by the time we start Friday that we will be at the 1,500. It really looks like it. We have quite a few trainers asking for more stalls right now."

Purses are projected to be $300,000 a day this meet, a record for Oaklawn and a figure that has helped the track draw more new stables and jockeys than it has in the last couple of years. Pope said recruiting efforts were stepped up for this meet, and beginning last July he and David Longinotti, the assistant general manager for racing at Oaklawn, hit tracks in Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, and Oklahoma.

"What I like is when you look at our backside, it's so diversified, and that's what we try to do," said Pope, who has been named the new racing secretary for Delaware Park's summer meet. "It makes for really exciting and competitive racing."

Bret Calhoun, who ranked as one of the leading trainers in wins in North America last year, is a prominent new face at Oaklawn. He said he has a 24-horse division in Hot Springs as well as some overflow horses for the meet stabled at Louisiana Downs. Ronny Werner is back with a string after a brief absence, while Jeff Bonde has sent in 15 head from his main base of operations in Northern California.

Danny Pish, who last fall won his 10th straight title at Retama Park, will have his first-ever division at Oaklawn. Bruce Jackson, who in 1993 came in from California and won the Oaklawn Handicap with Jovial, and Scooter Davis, from Mountaineer, are more new faces on the grounds. Mainstays include Steve Asmussen, the defending training champ; Bob Holthus, a nine-time title winner; and D. Wayne Lukas, who has a larger presence here than he did in 2008.

Jockeys Deshawn Parker and Dana Whitney are both in from Mountaineer, while Jon Court is due to ride at Oaklawn this meet after spending the last five years in Southern California. Also expected is Julio Garcia, who rode at Churchill Downs.

Temperatures just cracked the 30s on Tuesday morning as some 110 horses worked out, among them the Larry Jones-trained Dr. Large, who is a candidate for the $50,000 Smarty Jones for 3-year-olds at a mile on Monday. The forecast for Thursday night was in the 20s, but temperatures were expected to be in the 40s by the time the first of 54 cards of racing rolls around at 1 p.m. Central on Friday.