01/18/2005 1:00AM

The party's on in Smarty's wake

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Smarty Jones (far right) breaks from the gate in last year's Arkansas Derby. He helped make Oaklawn a hot spot.

It was money well spent. The $5 million bonus Oaklawn Park owner Charles Cella paid to the owners of Smarty Jones last year is still reaping dividends for the 101-year-old Hot Springs, Ark., track, which opens Friday with a large number of new stables, led by owner Michael Gill and trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

Also on hand will be some of the hottest 3-year-olds around, including Afleet Alex, Rockport Harbor, and Greater Good, who are settled in for the meet, and the Grade 2-winning filly Runway Model.

The renewed interest in racing at Oaklawn can be attributed to several factors, ranging from a record purse structure this year to the attention drawn to the track by the success of Smarty Jones. The colt's owners, Roy and Patricia Chapman, earned the $5 million Oaklawn bonus by winning the Rebel, the $1 million Arkansas Derby, and the Kentucky Derby. Smarty Jones went on to win the Preakness Stakes, too.

Gill and Lukas account for two of the largest new operations at Oaklawn Park. In all, 28 new outfits are expected for the meet, ranging in size from four-horse barns to stables of 40 horses, said racing secretary Pat Pope. The newcomers are from all over, including Arizona, California, Canada, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, and Massachusetts.

Lukas shipped 30 horses to Hot Springs in December.

"We've been stabled there a month," he said. "It was a good fit, we thought, for the horses we had available. I've always enjoyed it there, and it was a change of pace rather than go to [Gulfstream], which is basically under construction.

"The Overbrook people were very much in favor of Oaklawn."

Gill will have 40 horses at Oaklawn under trainer Tim Hooper, a former assistant to Scott Lake. Gill said his goal is to win the owner title, and he will have the horsepower to do it, especially considering the vast number of additional horses he has stabled in nearby Louisiana.

"Between Fair Grounds and Evangeline Downs [training center], I have access to another 100 horses," Gill said.

Other new barns at Oaklawn include Grant Hofmans, who is coming in from California; Dale Bennett; R.E. Bright; Patrick Daly; Brent Davidson; Layne Giliforte; Larry Mayo; Bill Parnell; and Hugh Robertson.

In all, Pope has received requests for between 2,500 and 2,700 stalls. There are 1,500 stalls at Oaklawn.

"Last year we had about 2,300 [stall requests]," he said. "It jumped that much."

Pope said Oaklawn will pay a record $250,000 a day in purses this meet, up from $235,000 last year and $200,000 less from than five years ago. The increase means maiden special weight races have risen in value from $25,000 four years ago to $31,000 for 2005. For bottom $5,000 claimers, purses have surged from $6,500 a few years ago to $8,500.

Although there is no bonus in place this year, Oaklawn has kept the purse for the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby at $1 million. The track has boosted the value of the Rebel for 3-year-olds, which will be run as a Grade 3 this year, from $200,000 to $250,000, and increased the purse of the Grade 2 Fantasy for 3-year-old fillies from $200,000 to $250,000. The stakes program will total $4.1 million.

"The Cella family is committed to having the very best horses they can present to the people," said Pope.

He added that besides the purse money, Oaklawn offers an attractive winter venue on several levels. "When people come here, they know they get to run," he said. "It's a great place to come. And [our] claiming horses are known throughout the country to hold their value here. You take them and you pick the track and they compete for that range wherever they go."

Gill was attracted to Oaklawn in part because of the track's active claim box. He has set no budget for the upcoming meet.

"If a good horse is in and I like him, I'm buying him," he said.

Gill said he is coming to Oaklawn to branch out his 400-horse stable, which for the most part is based in the Northeast. He said a number of horses he moved to Oaklawn last raced in Maryland.

"As my operation gets bigger, I can't keep that many horses in that tight a proximity," said Gill. "What happens is you have four or five horses for the same race."

Gill also liked the idea of getting some of his horses out of the colder climate. Some of the top horses he has in the region that figure to race at Oaklawn are stakes performers Forest Music, Pawyne Princess, Philadelphia Jim, and Crafty Guy. Gill said has been trying to buy quality 3-year-olds to take advantage of the rich program at Oaklawn.

Lukas wants to take advantage of that program, too. "We'll look at some of the 3-year-old stakes at the end of the meet," he said. "We'll play it by ear and see how it shakes out. We hope to be very active in the festival in the spring."

Lukas is the winningest trainer in Oaklawn's Racing Festival of the South, a weeklong series of stakes topped by the Arkansas Derby. Lukas has won 12 major festival races over the years, one of his most memorable coming last year with Azeri in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom.

"I can't think of a year that I've been here that he hasn't run at least one horse during the Festival of the South," said Pope, who has worked at Oaklawn since 1983.

And while Lukas is an annual fixture at Oaklawn because of the Festival, he has not kept a division at the track in years. Pope said the last year he remembers Lukas having a division in Hot Springs was when Dallas Stewart, now a trainer, was an assistant to Lukas. Stewart went out on his own as a trainer in 1997.

"It's our first year back in a long time," said Lukas.

Lukas said his Oaklawn division will be run by assistant Sebastian Nichols, who also was his assistant at Arlington Park. Lukas has two other divisions racing now, one in California and the other in New York.