02/20/2002 12:00AM

Revised schedule will keep Mr Ross out this weekend

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Mr Ross, one of the region's top handicap horses, had been expected to make his first start since passing $1 million in earnings in either the Grade 3, $75,000 Essex at Oaklawn Park on Saturday, or that day's $200,000 Connally Breeders' Cup at Sam Houston Race Park. But he will pass both races, according to his trainer, Donnie Von Hemel.

"There were a number of factors for the decision," said Von Hemel. He cited "a minor problem last week" that cost Mr Ross a few days of training, "then when you add in the weights, and look at what we want to try and do later in the meet, it all just added up to where we needed to sit this one out.

"Maybe you could overcome one thing, but not all of them put together."

Mr Ross instead will be pointed for the Grade 3, $100,000 Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn on March 16, and has also been nominated to the Grade 2, $500,000 New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds, which runs March 3. His chief goal this spring is the Grade 1, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap on April 6.

Last year, Mr Ross finished second in the Oaklawn Handicap after winning both the Razorback and Essex. For this year's Essex, he was weighted at 122 pounds, and would have given six pounds to the race's second highweight, $75,000 Diplomat Way winner Crafty Shaw.

Arctic Boy, second to Mr Ross when he became a millionaire in the $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston on Jan. 19, is under consideration for both the Connally, which he was entered in Wednesday, and the Essex.

"We're looking at both spots, and right now, we're leaning toward the Essex simply because he has raced just once on grass," said trainer Tony Richey.

Calvin Borel has the mount in the Essex, and Sidney LeJeune in the Connally.

Kiss of Lion an inspiration

Kiss of Lion, an Argentine-bred who earned his way to the Essex when he closed with a rush to win an optional claiming race Feb. 10, is a source of inspiration to his owner, Dr. James Logsdon, who has been fighting renal cell cancer since 1997.

Logsdon purchased Kiss of Lion with partner Tom Triblelette during a trip to Argentina in 2000. "I saw Kiss win a stakes at the San Isidoro track, and I fell in love with him," said Logsdon. He turned the horse over to trainer von Hemel, and last year won two optional claiming races with the horse at Oaklawn.

"My family and Kiss, that's what keeps me going," said Logsdon. "When he won that race, that was the best medicine I've had in a long time."

Leading rider Terry Thompson has the mount in the Essex.

Numbers up

Bolstered by a crowd of 22,833 last Saturday, and 27,106 on Monday, attendance during the first 16 days of the Oaklawn meet has averaged 12,125, up 5 percent from 11,536 during the corresponding period in 2001.

Handle is also up. The ontrack crowd has wagered an average $1,052,047 on Oaklawn's races daily this meet, up 3 percent from last year, while offtrack patrons have bet another $3,624,563 daily on races from Hot Springs, a 38 percent increase over 2001.

From all sources, handle on Oaklawn's races this meet has averaged $4,676,610.

* Nominations for the $75,000 Southwest Stakes for 3-year-olds at a mile on March 2 were not scheduled to close until midnight Thursday, but there has been such a strong response to the race that Oaklawn may split it, said racing secretary Pat Pope. So far, 20 horses have been nominated to the race, the first of two local preps for the $500,000 Arkansas Derby on April 13.