02/01/2002 1:00AM

This ought to be Ornate's prime-time season


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Some believe a horse's 5-year-old season can be his best, as a horse that age is both at his physical peak and has had time to mature mentally. Trainer Gary Hartlage is hoping that is true for Ornate, who makes her 5-year-old debut Sunday in the featured eighth race at Oaklawn Park.

The one-mile allowance has drawn eight fillies and mares, and is worth $31,000.

Ornate has not raced since she finished second behind runaway winner Quick Tip in a Turfway Park allowance Sept. 23. Hartlage said he and owners Anita and Barry Ebert elected to give the mare the next four months off to prepare for an Oaklawn campaign.

"We wanted to save her for this meet," said Hartlage. "She's 5 now, and hopefully she's a better horse than last year. She's training well, and if she runs good Sunday, I'm going to run her back in the $50,000 Pippin," on Feb. 16.

Ornate had a productive season last year, winning 3 of 9 starts, including her seasonal bow, a February allowance at Oaklawn. "She likes this track," said Hartlage, who has given the mount to Joe Johnson.

Johnson and Hartlage have emerged as the hottest trainer-jockey combo during the young Oaklawn season. Over the first three days of the meet, the pair won two races from three starters. It is the fastest start Hartlage, who tied Kenny Smith atop the trainer standings in 1997, has ever had at Oaklawn.

"We haven't missed any training this year and it's really helped us out a lot," said Hartlage. "The weather has cooperated. We had a real good January to train, and a good December at home in Kentucky."

One of Hartlage's most impressive winners over opening weekend was Contested. A 3-year-old colt by Prenup, Contested was a 5 1/4-length winner of a two-turn maiden race, closing from far back under Johnson. "Hopefully he might turn into something," Hartlage said. "He did things the right way."

Caressing eyes Oaklawn BC

Caressing, the champion 2-year-old filly of 2000, had her first work since November on Thursday, breezing four furlongs in 50.20 seconds. "It was everything we wanted; just a light easy work," said trainer David Vance. "We're going to go along slow for three weeks to a month, then get serious."

Vance said his goal is to bring Caressing back in the Grade 3, $200,000 Oaklawn Breeders' Cup Stakes on March 16. For the first time, the race will share a card with the Grade 3, $100,000 Razorback Handicap.

Caressing, a daughter of Honour and Glory who races for Carl Pollard, has been off since she finished sixth in the Grade 3 Falls City Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 22.

"We kicked her out for 45 days. She just needed to get away from the track, and with no place to run her in the winter, anyway, it was a good opportunity to freshen her up a bit," said Vance.

Last year, Caressing won two Grade 3 stakes, including the La Troienne. She has won 5 of 13 starts and $881,410.

o The Happy Hopper, a two-time stakes winner at Oaklawn who is now retired, is scheduled to be bred to Point Given, according to trainer Bob Holthus.

o The Arkansas Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association is sponsoring a free medical clinic for licensees in the chaplaincy building. The clinic starts Monday, and will be available on Mondays and Tuesdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

o Powder, a powerful allowance winner last Sunday, could turn up in stakes company later this meet in the $50,000 Spring Fever on March 10, said trainer Sonny Wigginton.