01/18/2007 1:00AM

Oaklawn not standing pat

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Horses will run for $290,000 to $300,000 in daily purses at this year's Oaklawn meet.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Oaklawn Park officials have been aggressive the past several years, increasing the purse of the Arkansas Derby to $1 million, and introducing the electronic parimutuel game Instant Racing. They have continued to take that approach for the track's 56-date meet that opens on Friday.

During the off-season, Oaklawn installed 130 terminals of card-based electronic games, which became legal when "games of skill" legislation was passed in 2005. The track has also put up a giant television screen in the infield, built a new barn named for Smarty Jones, hired new members to its management team, changed its entry schedule and claiming rules, and signed a deal to have its races shown for the first time on HorseRacing TV.

Purses are at a record level, budgeted by management between $290,000 to $300,000 a day. The distribution is fueled in part by the gaming. Counting the Instant Racing machines, a parimutuel-based game introduced in 2000, there are close to 500 gaming terminals clustered on the west end of the grandstand. Just outside that area, a scrolling sign keeps track of the purse money being earned by the machines.

"It's going up $7 a minute, and we've made it retroactive to when we started Instant Racing," said Eric Jackson, general manager of Oaklawn. "I think it's at $7.4 million right now, and at some point during the early part of the season, it will cross $8 million."

The strong purse structure for the meet has led to an oversubscribed stable area, which houses more than 1,400 horses. There are more than 1,700 foal papers on file for the meet, said Pat Pope, the racing secretary for Oaklawn.

"There's over 110 trainers that were assigned stalls," he said. "You've got the top 15 back, and there's over 20 trainers that did not start a horse in the program last year that are on the backside."

Some of the new faces include Tom Bohannan, who with owner John Ed Anthony won the Preakness in 1992 with Arkansas Derby winner Pine Bluff, and Chris Hartman, a leading trainer in New Mexico in his first season in Hot Springs. Cole Norman, who has won the past six training titles at Oaklawn, is back, along with trainers Larry Jones, Steve Hobby, and D. Wayne Lukas, who all have larger stables this year at Oaklawn.

"We're here for the winter," said Lukas. "I think it's a good 3-year-old program, and it lends itself to developing the young horses we've got. I've got a couple of pretty nice ones. That's why I'm here."

The hottest horse in Hot Springs is Hard Spun, an undefeated 3-year-old who won last weekend's Grade 3 Lecomte at Fair Grounds. Other top colts on the grounds include Officer Rocket, a Grade 3 winner for trainer Bob Holthus, who swept last year's 3-year-old series with Lawyer Ron; the Lukas-trained Pegasus Wind, who was third in the Grade 1 Champagne; and two-time stakes winner Going Ballistic.

Oaklawn's stakes program for 3-year-olds has grown in popularity the last few years after producing classic winners Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex. The first stakes in the series is the $250,000 Southwest at one mile on Feb. 19. It will be followed by the Grade 3, $300,000 Rebel at 1 1/16 miles March 17. The finale is the Arkansas Derby, the 1 1/8-mile race that was boosted in value to $1omillion in 2004.

The Arkansas Derby, to be run April 14, closes out the annual Racing Festival of the South, when at least one stakes a day is run the final week of the meet. In a change, this year's Festival opens with the Grade 2, $250,000 Fantasy on April 6.

Overall, there are 27 stakes worth $4.5 million this meet, beginning with the $50,000 Dixieland on Friday. A 5 1/2-furlong race for 3-year-olds, it drew a field of 13, including Tortuga Straits, who is 5 for 5, Officer Rocket, Go Poppa Fooze, Hadacure, and Speedway.

Officer Rocket will shorten up to one turn for the Dixieland. His three wins include a dead-heat score in the Grade 3 Arlington-Washington Futurity. Holthus has given the mount to Calvin Borel.

Tortuga Straits won the $100,000 Louisiana Champions Day Juvenile at Fair Grounds in his last start Dec. 9. Luis Quinonez rides for trainer Ralph Irwin.

Others of interest include the quick Proud Leader, and Speedway, who can stalk and pounce. Terry Thompson, who is two wins from career victory 2,000, has the mount on Speedway, while Oaklawn newcomer Quincy Hamilton will ride Proud Leader.

Jockey John Jacinto is back to defend his 2006 riding title.