10/15/2001 11:00PM

Sickness on backstretch thins Oak Tree fields

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Hampered by widespread sickness on the Santa Anita backstretch, Oak Tree racing secretary Mike Harlow is struggling to fill races. Only 65 horses entered Wednesday's eight-race card; just 63 were entered for eight races Thursday.

"I usually never struggle at this meet, but I understand 300 to 400 horses are sick," Harlow said. "I don't have any other explanation [for not filling races] other than than that. They're not sick where they can't train, but they they're coughing, so they can't run."

The dilemma is particularly frustrating considering the Oak Tree meet began with a bang three weeks ago. Fields were full, and quality races were deep. "The handle was showing it, too," Harlow said. "We were up 8 or 9 percent on-track, and up substantially" off-track as well.

A six-day racing week that concluded Oct. 8 also took its toll on the population. "Usually the week after the six-day week is tough, that was true last year too. But it was nowhere near what I'm going through now."

In terms of quality, the two best races on the Thursday card are races 2 and 7. Unfortunately, the races drew only five and six entrants, respectively. Race 2 is a one-mile turf race for fillies and mares, originally written as a $100,000 claiming race. In order to attract sufficient starters, the conditions were modified to include $125,000 claiming. Four of the entrants run for a $100,000 tag; Bobby Frankel-trained comebacker Dancingonice will run for $125,000.

In race 7, a field of six older horses race a mile on grass for claiming prices ranging from $90,000 to $100,000. Jokerman drops out of a third-place finish in a highly rated three-other-than allowance, and may start favored. Jokerman has not won a race in nearly two years, however, and trainer Neil Drysdale entered the Wednesday card having not won a race in Southern California since Aug. 17. (Drysdale entered contenders in races 4 and 7 on Wednesday.).

If Jokerman proves counterfeit, Julio Canani's recent $80,000 claim Eye Pea Oh may upset. Eye Pea Oh, a gelding, finished a troubled fourth last out, beaten 3 1/2 lengths against. slightly softer company. Canani claimed him from trainer Ron Ellis for owners Marty and Pam Wygod. The Wygods were once main clients of Ellis. Canani said there was no hidden agenda in the claim.

"We just wanted a horse to run, and he's a horse who runs good all the time," Canani said. "He's there all the time." Eye Pea Oh, a 5-year-old gelding, has four wins and earnings of $173,740 from 15 starts. Kent Desormeaux, who rode him to victory twice early in the year, regains the mount.

Other starters include Merhy, up from a win for $62,500 claiming; Negociateur, who will scratch from a race Wednesday; and comebacker Come Back Ronnie. Trained by Julio's son Nick Canani, Come Back Ronnie has been off since last November but has trained well for his return.