01/10/2012 3:29PM

Oaklawn Park: Track gets finishing touches as opener looms

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Barbara D. Livingston
On Fire Baby could face males in Monday's $100,000 Smarty Jones at Oaklawn Park.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – With the backstretch nearly bursting at the seams Tuesday and the grandstand undergoing a spit-and-polish job, it is clearly Oaklawn time in Arkansas.

“This is like Christmas for us, what we work all year for,” said Eric Jackson, the track’s general manager. “It’s [three days] away, and we can’t wait.”

Friday will be the first of 56 days of racing at Oaklawn, which will continue its season to April 14. To prepare for the new meet, the grandstand will be closed for simulcasting through Thursday so crews can attend to waxing the floors, cleaning windows, and putting the tote board through its paces in advance of an anticipated crowd of more than 20,000 on Friday.

Horses have been arriving in the stable area since the middle of November, and as of Tuesday more than 1,400 of the track’s 1,500 stalls were occupied, said Pat Pope, racing secretary at Oaklawn. He expects to be at capacity by Friday. Pope received overflow requests for stalls for the new meet, with owners and trainers seeking accommodations for a cumulative 2,600 horses, up from the typical 2,200 to 2,300.

“We’re very pleased with that,” he said.

Entries for the first card were to be drawn Wednesday, and full fields should be in order. Jackson and Pope both said no training time has been lost to date due to weather. In fact, it was in the high 40s on Tuesday in Hot Springs, with forecasters calling for temperatures in that range and higher over the four-day opening weekend that extends to Monday with the running of the $100,000 Smarty Jones.

The Smarty Jones, a one-mile race for 3-year-olds, will likely draw the filly On Fire Baby, a multiple Grade 2 winner this past fall at Churchill Downs. She breezed five furlongs in 1:02.20 on Tuesday on a fast track at Oaklawn.

“As it is right now, we’ll attempt to get in the stakes with the boys,” said Gary Hartlage, who trains On Fire Baby for Anita Cauley.

Hartlage said as a reserve, On Fire Baby is nominated to the $125,000 Silverbulletday for 3-year-old fillies at Fair Grounds on Jan. 21.

The Smarty Jones is one of three stakes over opening weekend at Oaklawn. The $75,000 Fifth Season for 4-year-olds and up is on deck Friday, and it could draw Kentucky Derby alum Twice the Appeal. It would be his first start since finishing 10th in the classic. Prior to that race, Twice the Appeal won the Grade 3, $800,000 Sunland Park Derby.

“He may run opening weekend,” said Jeff Bonde, who trains Twice the Appeal and has a division in Hot Springs. “He’s nominated. He worked [Monday] at Oaklawn.”

It Happened Again also is targeting the Fifth Season, according to his owner, Maggi Moss. The other opening weekend stakes, the $50,000 Dixie Belle for 3-year-old fillies at six furlongs, could draw the undefeated Now I Know.