02/04/2010 12:00AM

Oaklawn roundup

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Oaklawn Park is well known for being a hotbed for young equine talent, with such horses as Rachel Alexandra, Curlin, Smarty Jones, and Afleet Alex having raced at the track over the past several years. But it also houses an unusually high percentage of up-and-coming trainers, such as 35-year-olds Tim Ice, known for his work with champion Summer Bird, and Mac Robertson, who has one of the better handicap horses on the grounds in Win Willy.

The list also includes Brad Cox, who won with 28 percent of his starters here in 2009; Chris Richard, who is a 21 percent trainer lifetime; Ingrid Mason, who is 2 for 5 in her initial season at Oaklawn; and Scott Becker, who struck out on his own last spring and won 40 races in 2009.

"I think Oaklawn gives you an opportunity to kind of showcase your talent," said Ice, who last meet won at a 21 percent clip in Hot Springs. "It lets you get your name out there because I think Oaklawn is one of the premier spots of wintertime racing."

Ice, who saddled his first winner in September 2008, said his stable has grown from 15 horses last meet at Oaklawn to 33. Driving the barn's numbers is the success of Summer Bird, who last year won the Belmont Stakes, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Robertson, who sent out Win Willy to upset Old Fashioned, the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby, in last year's Grade 2 Rebel at Oaklawn, agrees that the track is a good place for a young trainer to get established.

"In the winter, people are watching Oaklawn Park, Fair Grounds, and Gulfstream," he said. "Those are three tracks people are really watching, and if you do well at one of those tracks, people are going to notice you.

"We've been fortunate that [Oaklawn] has had the best horse in training, basically, for the past five years, and people want to see the best horse, and while they're looking at the best horse, they might happen to notice some of the other people around them."

Robertson, who won his sixth consecutive Canterbury title in 2009, has a 40-horse stable at Oaklawn.

The track's younger set has the benefit of a talented roster of older horsemen to learn from. Oaklawn is the regular home of such classic-winning trainers as D. Wayne Lukas, Lynn Whiting, and Tim Ritchey.

"I think younger trainers, being around and watching the way older trainers prep horses, the way they run their horses, and the way they spot their horses, if they're paying attention, they can learn an awful lot," said Ritchey, who trained champion Afleet Alex. "And I think that's an advantage, having a mixture of some of the older trainers that are around here."

Ron Moquett, 39, became a Grade 1-winning trainer in 2006 when Seek Gold won the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs at 91-1. He regularly spends his Oaklawn mornings alongside Bob Holthus, the all-time winningest trainer at Oaklawn, and James Garroutte, a noted former jockey who now trains, and is not afraid to seek their advice. And, he is listening. Moquett and Robertson were tied for third in the Oaklawn standings heading into the race week, with Moquett's runners landing in the money 44 percent of the time. The two are chasing another up-and-comer, Allen Milligan, the 41-year-old who leads the current standings in search of his second straight title at Oaklawn.

Becker trains for the meet's defending leading owner, William Stiritz, and is 2 for 8 so far at Oaklawn. He is a former assistant to trainer Terry Gestes and has about 26 horses on the grounds. Among them is Palanka City, a Grade 3-winning sprinter, and Afleet Deceit, who last year was second to Rachel Alexandra in the Grade 2 Fantasy. Other top horses for the stable include multiple stakes winner Proceed B.

WHAT'S HOT

The claim box. There were five horses claimed last Thursday, Jan. 28, for total transactions of $87,500. It was a strong day of business between barns, with three of the horses claimed for a price of $20,000 or more. In total, 26 horses have been claimed through the first nine dates of racing this meet, for transactions of $368,750.

The rapid-fire claiming activity is not new to Oaklawn. But what is notable, perhaps, is that a fair amount of money is being spent on horses in a down economy. There has been a $50,000 claim at the meet, something not seen often even in good times. That claim has helped drive the average claim price this meet to a solid $14,182. That balances out to an average $40,972 spent each day in claims this season at Oaklawn.

WHAT'S NOT

Mother Nature. The temperatures dropped into the 20s last week at Oaklawn, leading to the cancellation of racing from Jan. 29-31. But the long-range forecast for the weekend has temperatures reaching the 50s by Saturday and Sunday.

ON THE STAKES DOCKET

A first look at the local handicap division comes Saturday in the $100,000 Essex, a 1 1/16-mile race that serves as the first of two local preps for the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap on April 3. Win Willy, who has trained sharply since winning his seasonal debut here Jan. 21, is being considered for the Essex, while the race is also expected to draw the Jinks Fires-trained stakes winners Prom Shoes and Spotsgone.

TALES FROM THE TRACK

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas said apprentice Frederic Lenclud, who is riding some horses for him this meet at Oaklawn, has a "great future." But he recalls another apprentice many years ago that he found to be clueless. Lukas, aboard a pony near the starting gate before a race, said he heard a conversation between that apprentice and a starter that he has never forgotten.

"There was a scratch at the gate," Lukas said, "so the head starter says, 'All right, boys, move 'em all down,' meaning, of course, move the numbers [above the gate]. But the bug boy said 'Oh no, I came out on this one and I'm going to ride this one!' "

HORSES TO WATCH

R Star

Trainer: Cindy Jones

Last race: Jan. 28, 9th

Finish: 1st by 7

He has officially figured out the racing game. After chasing horses in his three previous career starts, he shot to the lead while making his 3-year-old debut in a $40,000 maiden claiming sprint, turned back a pace rival, then poured it on through the lane in a visually stirring performance. A gelded son of Forest Camp, he earned a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 93.

Sweet Relish

Trainer: Donnie Von Hemel

Last race: Sept. 19, 4th (PRM)

Finish: 4th by 9 1/4

A stakes winner, she worked her fourth bullet this winter at Oaklawn on Tuesday, going five furlongs from the gate in 1:01. The move was the fastest of 24 at the distance, on a 43-degree morning in which the track was rated fast. Von Hemel said she is being considered for a start in the $60,000 Spring Fever for fillies and mares at 5 1/2 furlongs here Feb. 20.

Miss Atlantic

Trainer: Randy Morse

Last race: Jan. 28, 8th

Finish: 3rd by 2 1/4

She set a pressured pace for much of a $17,500 optional claiming route for fillies and mares and did well to hold third over a track that was tiring. Her pace rival ended up seventh, while the winner of the race closed strongly into the hot fractions made by Miss Atlantic.