01/17/2007 12:00AM

Steppenwolfer targets series for older horses


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Steppenwolfer, one of the top 3-year-olds at Oaklawn Park a year ago, is back in Hot Springs with his main objective the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap on Aprilo7, said his trainer, Dan Peitz.

Steppenwolfer was the runner-up in the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby and ran third in the Kentucky Derby. He last raced on June 10, finishing fourth in the Belmont Stakes. Peitz said the colt could make his first start of the year in the Grade 3, $100,000 Essex Handicap on Feb. 10.

"The Essex, Razorback, and Oaklawn Handicap, we'd like to make all three of those races here if everything goes good with him," he said. "Right now, I'd say I'm happy with the way he's acting and training."

Steppenwolfer's season was cut short last year after he missed a scheduled start in the Grade 2, $1omillion Virginia Derby with a fever. After he regrouped, the goal was to make the Travers, but those plans were scratched.

"Once we went back to training on him again, he just didn't seem like he was ever really himself again," said Peitz. "I just kept going back to that something just wasn't right with him behind."

For a month, specialists attempted to diagnose exactly what was bothering Steppenwolfer. "We could never put a finger on what was going on with him," said Peitz.

The decision was made to give him a rest, and Steppenwolfer was sent to a farm in Ocala, Fla., near the end of August.

"He had a couple of months out, being a horse and eating grass, and he got a few works down there before he came to me," said Peitz.

"One thing about it, Mother Nature seems to heal them up as good as anything. He's acting like he always did here last year. He seems happy."

Peitz's stable includes the promising 3-year-old colt Perfect Vow, and the Grade 1-placed filly X Star.

Big changes to claiming rules

The rash of claims last year at Oaklawn has led to changes to the claiming rules. During last year's 53-day meet, there were 351 horses claimed for a record $6 million. This year, the Arkansas Racing Commission has adopted some rule changes that were proposed following discussions between horsemen and Oaklawn. The idea is to keep the horse population strong in Hot Springs.

"We are in favor of claiming, but we're not in favor of claiming when they pull horses out of here and it hurts the overall program and it hurts the horsemen who stay here, so they've made some pretty significant changes in the claiming rule," said Eric Jackson, Oaklawn's general manager.

The boldest change ensures that claimed horses keep racing at Oaklawn.

"If you claim a horse during the Oaklawn season and don't run that horse back before the end of the season, that horse will not be eligible to run anywhere in America for 30 days," said Jackson. "The exception is during the final three weeks, or if there are extenuating circumstances, such as you tried but you couldn't get into a race or a race didn't go that you tried to get into, something like that."

In another change, Arkansas is reverting to one of its previous rules: an owner must start a horse at the meet before he or she can claim at the meet. There is an exception for a newcomer to racing. Arkansas has also changed the time horses spend in "jail," or the period of time a claimed horse must run for a higher price. It has been shortened from 30 days to 20, said Jackson.

Oaklawn a special place for Moss

Maggi Moss, who led all owners in wins in North America in 2006, said Oaklawn played a key role in her involvement in racing.

"In 1998, my very first horse I ever claimed was at Hot Springs," she said. "It was a horse called Apak, who I still own. That was the first racehorse I'd ever claimed in my life; the first year I'd ever been in racing, actually."

Moss, who now has 60 horses in training, has raced horses at Oaklawn every year since, and will be active at the meet again this year. She is coming off a stellar season in which her stable won 211 races from 756 starts, a feat that clinched her first national title.

"It was something that I thought had to be done," said Moss, the first woman to win a races-won owner title since 1956. "There's just so much money out there, and conglomerates and partnerships and racing managers and Europeans, that I just thought it was important to American racing to show that a single little girl from Iowa could accomplish that goal with this type of playing field. It's kind of like breaking a glass ceiling to me."

Moss, whose stable earned $3.9 million last year to rank sixth in North America, is a prominent trial lawyer in Iowa, and she personally manages her nationwide stable. This year, she had planned to send a large number of horses to Oaklawn, but had only four on the grounds with trainers Steve Asmussen and Chris Richard as the meet started - because she lost 15 through the claim box in December. She plans to grow her local stable through claiming.

"Hot Springs will be one of the places I'm going to consolidate and concentrate on," said Moss, who will also focus on Fair Grounds and Southern California this winter.

She has two starters at Oaklawn on Friday.

* On opening day Friday, corned beef sandwiches will sell for 50 cents and sodas for a dime.