01/21/2003 12:00AM

Norman aims for three-peat

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Trainer Cole Norman moved his stable into Oaklawn Park about two weeks later than usual this year, but is settled in now and will begin his quest for a third straight training title at the track when its 55-day meet opens on Friday.

A record purse structure of $235,000 to $240,000 a day is in place for the winter session, and it has helped lure horses from a host of new stables. Among them are trainers John Veitch, Blackie Huffman, Noel Hickey, Robert Klesaris, Scooter Dickey, Larry Jones, Joe Woodard, Mike Tomlinson, and Kelly Von Hemel.

Norman, who won 266 races last year to rank as the nation's third leading trainer by wins, remains the one to beat for the training title. He typically ships into Oaklawn by the first of January, but this year he did not arrive until Jan. 13.

Despite the schedule change, Norman's horses are prepared for the meet. They have been training at Louisiana Downs in Bossier City, La., which is minutes from his home base in Haughton, La.

"They kept Louisiana Downs open all year, where in years past we had to leave at the end of December, so with the track staying open and me being home, we stayed there a couple more weeks," Norman said.

"Everything shipped over fine, and we're anxious to get started."

Norman has 40 horses stabled at Oaklawn, and another 30 at Louisiana Downs. Last year he won the Oaklawn title with 45 wins, 21 more than second-leading trainer Stanley Roberts.

Weather threatens opener

Freezing temperatures are forecast for Wednesday and Thursday night in Hot Springs, which could threaten opening day on Friday. The last time Oaklawn was forced to cancel opening day because of the weather was 1997, when the first four days of the meet were lost due to inclement weather.

Freezing temperatures also forced the cancellation of two days last year.

So far this season, morning training hours have not been interrupted often by weather. Since the track opened for training on Dec. 1, three days have been lost due to inclement weather, most recently last Friday and Saturday.

Perhaps bracing for frozen temperatures, 189 horses worked out at Oaklawn on Tuesday.