01/23/2002 12:00AM

Purses up, barns full as meet begins

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Oaklawn Park will open for 54 days of racing Friday with a record purse structure that has helped the track draw more new stables than it has in about a dozen years. The meet, which also has attracted a deeper than usual riding colony, runs through April 13.

The expanded purse structure and backstretch population will help ring in this year's meet with much more enthusiasm than last year, when an ice storm crippled the area just before the meet started, putting a damper on the season.

Temperatures have been kinder this year, and for Friday's opener forecasters are calling for 52 degrees and partly cloudy skies. It is welcome weather as this year's meet gets under way a week earlier than last year's, and in the recent past opening weekends at Oaklawn have been plagued by freezing temperatures.

The weather has also toyed with horsemen's training schedules in recent years. Last year, 28 days of training were lost because of the ice storm. This year, however, not a single training day has been lost, which should translate into full fields from the start of the meet.

Luring horsemen to the entry box will be $230,000 to $250,000 a day in purses, up from last year's $212,000 standard, thanks to a new tax break, an increase in simulcast betting, and the growth of Instant Racing, an electronic parimutuel game that will record its fourth straight month of $1 million in handle in January.

Elevated purses, plus the absence of a spring meet this year at Remington Park in Oklahoma City, as well as the closing of Hialeah in Florida this year, have all played roles in filling the backstretch with such new outfits as James Baker, Mitch Shirota, Richard Kohnhorst, Danny Switzer, Steve Moyer, Joe Offolter, and Barry Germany.

"I've noticed more horses training here than I've seen in four or five years," said trainer Pete Vestal.

Indeed, as of Tuesday, there were 200 more sets of foal papers registered for the meet than last year. "This was probably the biggest response for stalls from horsemen we've had in 12 years," said Oaklawn general manager Eric Jackson.

And along with numbers, there is quality.

"It certainly looks like we've got a better group of horses out there training in the mornings," said trainer Don Von Hemel. "And we've got a good group of jockeys. That always means a little something in our game. They follow the horses."

Jockeys James Lopez, Marlon St. Julien, and Kris Prather are new to Oaklawn this season, taking on defending champ Calvin Borel.

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