01/14/2010 12:00AM

Oaklawn roundup

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With horses converging on Oaklawn Park from six to eight different racing circuits - and many of them returning from layoffs - it can be a challenge to pick winners early in the Hot Springs, Ark., meet. But paying attention to a horse's company lines and identifying runners that are fit can help a handicapper's chances.

Oaklawn is a melting pot of stables, its backstretch largely made up of barns from Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas, according to racing secretary Pat Pope. There are also stables that come in from as far away as Canada, creating a real jigsaw puzzle when it comes to determining where a horse fits class-wise at Oaklawn.

"You have to look at who they competed against," Pope said. "There are certain circuits that produce tougher races. You might have a choice between a horse that won his last start and one who was fourth, and the one that was fourth might be better because of who the first-, second-, and third-place finishers were and what they might have gone on to do. I'm big into 'Who did they run against?' "

Pope said recency is another variable horseplayers should put a lot of emphasis on. Many of the tracks the horses are coming from concluded their meets in the fall, so trainers are just getting those runners geared up for a new season.

"A lot of horses ship in here and some of them just aren't ready to give their best," said Jinks Fires, a longtime trainer at Oaklawn. "Once horses get an out over here, they're pretty good next time."

Fires said a fit horse, one with recent races or a strong work pattern, will tend to win early in the Oaklawn meet.

"It's a tiring track right now," he said. "They've got a sandy-base track - they have to because of the kind of climate you have here - and it can be deep. If they aren't able to put water on it because of the weather, it can be slow."

As a rule, Oaklawn's surface tends to get quicker as the meet goes on. The warmer temperatures of spring enable maintenance crews to put more water on the track, making for a tighter strip. But until then, athletic horses who are light on their feet seem to get over the track better than their larger, heavier counterparts.

The latter individuals can sink into the deeper, or cuppier, surface, and might not find success until later in the season. Looking at a horse's past Oaklawn form to determine when he was successful over the track can help pinpoint who might be best suited to the typical Oaklawn conditions in January and February.

It also might make picking winners a little easier this winter.

Early to arrive, early to win

Steve Hobby is traditionally one of the first trainers on the grounds, and in the last two years he has had strong Oaklawn meets. He won with 18 percent of his starters here a year ago to rank third in the standings, and the meet before was second, hitting at a 23 percent rate. Hobby said his 40-horse stable was settled in at Oaklawn around Thanksgiving.

"I think it lets the horses get well acquainted with the track, and I suppose it gives me a little edge over someone who pops in late and doesn't have a work over the track," he said. "Mine have several works. It's not something you have to do, but I think it's better if you can."

Other stables that arrived early include Fires, Don Von Hemel, and Ron Moquett.

As for Hobby, his barn has a handful of 3-year-olds by the hot stallions Tiznow and Birdstone.

"I feel very good about the meet," Hobby said. "I've got a really well-balanced barn, some really nice horses. I have a lot of 3-year-olds."

Tiz Miz Sue was second to future Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner She Be Wild in September in Grade 3 Arlington-Washington Lassie. Tiz Dangerous is a $350,000 yearling purchase by Tiznow, and Perfect Drive is a candidate for the $100,000 Smarty Jones on Monday.

Telling, who last year won the Grade 1 Sword Dancer at Saratoga, has been on vacation and arrived at the barn Monday, said Hobby. Telling, whose greatest win came on turf, boasts a 3-for-4 record at Oaklawn.

Straight from the clocker's watch

Hobby's horses are among those longtime Oaklawn clocker Jim Hamilton expects to be effective at the start of the meet.

"He looks like he's sitting on go," Hamilton said. "His horses are all training real well. There are a few barns that stand out, and right now Hobby's looks as good as anybody's."

Hamilton said another trainer who appears primed for a quick start at Oaklawn is Charles "Scooter" Dickey.

"Scooter's horses have trained well," Hamilton said. "He doesn't ask for a whole lot early in a work. They go along slow and all finish well and gallop out well.

"He looks like he's loaded up pretty good."

Dickey's recent workers include Yore and Fortune Play, who were both maiden special weight winners during the fall meet at Churchill Downs. Flat Out, who won the Smarty Jones last meet for Dickey, breezed five furlongs at Oaklawn in December.

Another horse who has caught Hamilton's eye is the Donnie Von Hemel-trainer Sweet Relish. She breezed three furlongs in a bullet 35.80 seconds Jan. 4.

"She went pretty sharp," he said of Sweet Relish, a stakes winner who has not raced since September. "She looks like she's coming back real well. I don't know how far along she is, she just went three-eighths, but she looked good."

Sweet Relish won the $100,000 Cinemine at Lone Star Park last May for her owner-breeder, Pin Oak Stable.

Smarty Jones first step toward Arkansas Derby

A first look at some of the better 3-year-olds on the grounds will come Monday in the $100,000 Smarty Jones at a mile. The race is the first of three local preps for the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby. Also this weekend, fillies and mares will sprint in the $50,000 American Beauty, a race that trainer Steve Asmussen has won five times since 2001.

w A year ago at Oaklawn, jockey Terry Thompson took the lead in the rider standings over opening weekend and never looked back en route to the title. The defending training champ is Allen Milligan.

HORSES TO WATCH

Euphony

Trainer: Donnie Von Hemel

Last race: Aug. 30, 9th (Monmouth Park)

Finish: 5th by 9 1/2

A perfect 4 for 4 at Oaklawn, she has been freshened since the Grade 2 Molly Pitcher at Monmouth and is up to working six furlongs in preparation for her seasonal debut. Look for her to be a force in the meet's distaff division following a year in which she won the Grade 3 Arlington Matron, the $125,000 Iowa Distaff, and the $100,000 Bayakoa at Oaklawn while making her first start in five months. The stakes action for her division begins Jan. 23, with the $75,000 Pippin.

Payton d'Oro

Trainer: Cindy Jones

Last race: Nov. 7, 9th (Churchill Downs)

Finish: 5th by 3 1/4

Last year's Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan winner, she looks like another serious player in the filly and mare ranks this meet. She is 3 for 3 in two-turn races at Oaklawn and affirmed her love of the surface Jan. 5 when she breezed a half-mile in 48.80 seconds. The move was the quickest of 95 at the distance, and it's worth noting it was the filly's first work since finishing fifth in the Grade 2 Chilukki at Churchill Downs.

Jonesboro

Trainer: Randy Morse

Last race: Nov. 7, 9th (Churchill Downs)

Finish: 8th by 14

He was set to run Dec. 4 in the $125,000 Delta Downs Mile but was scratched from the race because of wet track conditions. Since then he has been working sharply at Oaklawn, where he turned in a bullet five furlongs in 1:00.80 on Jan. 5. Jonesboro has been a major player in the region's handicap ranks for years and is coming off a super season in which he won the Grade 2 Cornhusker with a Beyer Speed Figure of 109.