01/11/2011 2:25PM

Oaklawn officials optimistic about upcoming meet

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An overflowing stable area and signs that the economy is improving are among the reasons Oaklawn Park officials are looking forward to the 56-date meet that gets under way Friday in Hot Springs, Ark.

“I think we’re cautiously optimistic,” said Eric Jackson, the general manager of Oaklawn. “The economy in this part of the country is starting to look a lot more positive than it has in a while.”

So is the weather forecast. A snowstorm earlier in the week forced the cancellation of training on Monday and Tuesday, but the forecast for opening day is for sunny skies and highs in the low 40s.

The population on the backstretch this meet is one of the most geographically diverse that Pat Pope, the longtime racing secretary at Oaklawn, said he has ever seen in Hot Springs.

“I’ve got such a strong contingent this year,” he said. “If I had another 100 to 150 stalls, I could fill them.”

As it stands, all 1,500 stalls at Oaklawn are accounted for, with stables in from Canada, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Steve Asmussen, who led all North American-based trainers in wins in 2010, is back to defend his title against a slew of newcomers that include Tony Dutrow, Jamie Ness, Ron Goodridge, Eric Reed, Jim Meyaard, and Karl Broberg.

The riding colony is also brimming with talent. Terry Thompson, the defending champ, will take on Calvin Borel, who is to ride Friday for the first time since suffering a broken jaw in a spill in the Delta Downs Jackpot in November; Michael Baze, who won the riding title last year at Arlington Park; and Cliff Berry, the title winner at Remington Park who went 7 for 7 on a card there in December. Others expected for the meet include Gabriel Saez, Jeremy Rose, Francisco Torres, Eddie Razo, and Joe Rocco Jr.

Oaklawn is to race through April 16.

“It’s not readily obvious, but we do have a longer season,” Jackson said of the meet, which last year was scheduled for 54 days but ended up being 50 due to weather-related cancellations. “It’s just the calendar, the way it fell out.”

Oaklawn traditionally places the Arkansas Derby, run on the final card each meet, three weeks prior to the Kentucky Derby. This year, Jackson noted, the Kentucky Derby will be run on May 7 after being held on May 1 in 2010.

“It stretches out the calendar, and it just gives us more opportunity to race as well,” he said.

The first card of the Oaklawn meet was to be drawn on Wednesday, with the track’s opening weekend set to extend through the holiday Monday.