01/21/2004 12:00AM

Servis gets with program


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - When John Servis, who trains Kentucky Derby hopeful Smarty Jones, was looking to take some of his Philadelphia Park-based horses south for the winter, he liked what he saw in the 3-year-old stakes program at Oaklawn Park.

"I really like the way the distances set up," he said. "I like the way the distances progress with each race. You don't have to shorten up to one turn."

And it didn't hurt that this year Oaklawn raised the purse for its three route stakes for 3-year-olds, boosting the one-mile Southwest from $75,000 to $100,000, the 1 1/16-mile Rebel from $125,000 to $200,000, and the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby from $500,000 to $1 million.

And so, Servis has brought 15 horses to Hot Springs, and his stable is one of the deepest on the grounds. Smarty Jones is the marquee horse, having won his three career starts by a combined 27 3/4 lengths. One of them was a 15-length romp in the Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes in November, for which he earned a 105 Beyer Speed Figure, tied for the highest number among all 2-year-olds in 2003.

In his most recent start, Smarty Jones won his two-turn debut in the $81,000 Count Fleet at Aqueduct. If he had continued to prep for the Kentucky Derby in New York, Smarty Jones might have had to cut back to a one-turn mile for the Gotham. With the move to Oaklawn, however, Servis can keep him racing around two turns, with his next start to come in the Southwest on Feb. 28.

"He's settled in good, really good," said Servis, who shipped in on Jan. 7. "He's one of a couple of nice 3-year-olds we've nominated for the Triple Crown."

The other is End of an Era, who is scheduled to run Saturday in the $50,000 Mountain Valley. He has won 2 of 3 starts, all at sprint distances.

"He has a huge upside," said Servis. "He's bred to get better as he goes longer."

Stephan's Angel and Foolishly, who will run Friday in the $50,000 Dixie Belle, are two stakes-winning fillies that add depth to Servis's string at Oaklawn.

Servis has another 30 horses based at Philadelphia Park. He decided to send a division south this year in part because it became apparent slots were not going to pass anytime soon in Pennsylvania. Aside from the 3-year-old program at Oaklawn, he knew he liked the facility, having brought Jostle to town in 2001 for the Grade 1 Apple Blossom.

"I just felt like Oaklawn Park was the best place for us to come and make money," said Servis, who had also considered wintering in Florida or Louisiana.

McKee to ride for Holthus

Jockey John McKee, who has made a successful transition to journeyman after losing his apprentice allowance in June, will make his Oaklawn debut on Friday. The 22-year-old comes to Hot Springs from Kentucky.

"I had been riding a lot of horses at Churchill Downs and Keeneland for Bob Holthus and he more or less invited me down here," said McKee.

McKee has been the regular rider on two promising 3-year-olds for Holthus, Pro Prado and Proper Prado. Both colts are graded stakes placed and both race for Mrs. James Winn.

"Pro Prado has shown [talent] to win his first couple of starts, and Proper Prado, there's just something I like about him," said McKee. "He really makes up a lot of ground on the end."

In his last start, Proper Prado finished third in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.

McKee, who draws comparisons to Hall of Fame rider Pat Day for both his build and patience on a horse, is the son of jockey David McKee.

"He rode around the Midwest," said John McKee. "Seeing winning pictures of him just inspired me."

McKee began his career in March 2002, and was one of the hottest apprentices in Kentucky. Since losing his bug, he has won such stakes as the Grade 2 Firecracker at Churchill Downs.

Prices rolled back to 1904

In celebration of its 100th anniversary, Oaklawn will sell its corned beef sandwiches for 50 cents this weekend, while soda, popcorn, hot dogs, and ice cream will be sold for 10 cents. The items will be available all weekend, while supplies last.

"We actually went back through the archives and tried to find out what were the food items at a racetrack at the turn of the century and what did they sell for," said Eric Jackson, general manager of Oaklawn. "We came as close as we could to what we think might have existed at that time."

* E J Harley and Chindi, two popular old-timers who have won sprint stakes at Oaklawn, have turned in published works in preparation for the meet. E J Harley is 12 and Chindi is 10.

* Oaklawn replaced the base of its racetrack in the off-season, a project that needs to be done about every 15 or 20 years, according to Jackson.