01/16/2009 12:00AM

Oaklawn keeps it short and sweet

Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
Rachel Alexandra, winner of the Grade 2 Golden Rod at Churchill, is targeting Oaklawn's Martha Washington and Honeybee stakes.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - These are tough economic times, but you would not know it looking around Oaklawn Park.

The track has a new face as part of an ongoing $30 million construction project that began after the meet closed a year ago. Purses are budgeted at a record $300,000 a day. And the 3-year-olds Old Fashioned, one of the early favorites for the Kentucky Derby, and Rachel Alexandra, a leading candidate for the Kentucky Oaks, are both being pointed for stakes in February.

Consequently, optimism is high as Oaklawn opens for 54 days of racing on Friday.

"We're very concerned about the economy and what we're seeing going on around the country, but Oaklawn is a little bit different," said Eric Jackson, the track's general manager. "This is a social event in Arkansas.

"And it's short. It doesn't go on forever. We're only here for a dozen weekends, and then we're gone. So, almost like the Christmas season, there's a lot of anticipation about Oaklawn every year."

Horseplayers returning to Oaklawn will notice exterior changes to the southwest end of the building. To get to the main admission gates, most will travel through a new covered walkway that runs along a 52,500 square-foot addition to the grandstand. When completed in May, the addition will house 650 electronic gaming terminals and simulcast operations. Oaklawn already has 500 gaming terminals on the first floor of its grandstand, but plans to expand the total number to 1,000.

Construction on the addition will be contained to the interior sections through the close of the meet April 11. The final phase of construction is a renovation of the current 37,500 square-foot gaming area. Upon its completion at the end of 2009, it will give the track a total of 90,000 square feet for gaming and simulcasting, new restaurants, and a lounge.

"We're trying to come up with something that will carry Oaklawn down the road for a good number of years," Jackson said.

Oaklawn's gaming revenues will account for about a third of this year's record purse structure and a greater percentage in the future, said Jackson. The money has lured a slew of new stables and riders to town to take on the two-time defending training champ, Steve Asmussen, and last year's leading rider, Eddie Razo Jr.

The Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby on closing day is again the centerpiece of a 31-race, $4.6 million stakes schedule. It is also the highlight of the Racing Festival of the South, when at least one major stakes a day will be run over the final week of the meet. Past winners of the Arkansas Derby include Afleet Alex, Curlin, Gayego, Lawyer Ron, and Smarty Jones.

"The success of this meet, I think, will be measured by the success of the horses," said Jackson.

Rachel Alexandra, the winner of the Grade 2 Golden Rod at Churchill Downs, is to make her seasonal debut in the $50,000 Martha Washington on Feb. 15, said her trainer, Hal Wiggins. Old Fashioned, a finalist for champion 2-year-old of 2008, is being pointed for the Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest Stakes here Feb. 16, said his trainer, Larry Jones

Silver City could become a candidate for the 3-year-old series at Oaklawn, according to his trainer, Bret Calhoun. A son of Unbridled's Song, he will make his stakes debut Friday in the $50,000 Dixieland. Silver City will go favored in that 5 1/2-furlong race after earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 101 for a 4 1/2-length allowance win at Churchill in his last start Nov. 29.

"He totally dominated a good group of horses," said Calhoun.

Silver City shipped from Fair Grounds to Oaklawn on Wednesday morning. Calhoun said the timing and the distance of the Dixieland made the race a good fit for the horse, a $700,000 purchase at auction by Clarence Scharbauer Jr. Silver City has won 2 of 3 starts, both of his wins wire-to-wire in Kentucky.

"He's extremely talented," said Calhoun. "He's maturing mentally, he relaxes better. I think that's a key part - he's very talented and he's maturing mentally."

The chief threat to Silver City could be Regardlesofoutcome, who will be making his first start since finishing third in the $105,000 Tremont at Belmont Park in June for trainer Wesley Ward.