01/20/2004 1:00AM

Team Valor takes aim at Derby with Tiger Hunt


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Oaklawn Park, which begins a 55-day meeting Friday, has become a hot spot for 3-year-olds this year, with a richer program of stakes, higher daily purses, and a $5 million bonus tied into the Arkansas Derby. These incentives have helped lure 33 new stables to Oaklawn and such promising 3-year-olds as Tiger Hunt, Mr. Jester, Smarty Jones, Proper Prado, and Wildcat Shoes.

The bonus rewards the horse who can sweep the $200,000 Rebel, the $1 million Arkansas Derby - which has been doubled in value - and the Kentucky Derby. Daily purses are expected to average a record $250,000, in this, the track's 100th anniversary year.

Chief among the new stables to Oaklawn is Team Valor, which has sent two quality 3-year-olds to town: Tiger Hunt, who finished fourth last out in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and the undefeated Shadowland, who is scheduled to make his stakes debut Saturday in the Grade 3 Lecomte at Fair Grounds.

Ralph Nicks, a former Kentucky-based assistant to Bill Mott, took over the training of both horses in November, when he was named private trainer for Team Valor. Team Valor has 16 horses stabled at Oaklawn, its largest presence ever at the track, where it has won stakes with Demaloot Demashoot, Really Polish, and Windward Passage.

"We gave our grass horses the winter off and sent horses that were ready to run or figure to like that track," said Barry Irwin, president of Team Valor.

Irwin places Tiger Hunt in the latter group. He believes Tiger Hunt's come-from-behind style is suited to Oaklawn and said Tiger Hunt is scheduled to make two starts here before heading to the Kentucky Derby.

"We're going to do the Victory Gallop thing," said Irwin, referring to the path Victory Gallop, owned by Prestonwood Farm, took en route to his second-place finish in the 1998 Kentucky Derby. "We're going to run him in just the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby and come into the [Kentucky] Derby with a fresh horse. He's got all the experience. He just needs to get fit again, and sharp. He shipped all around the country as a 2-year-old."

Irwin noted that Tiger Hunt ran in three two-turn stakes at 2. He won the $200,000 Cradle at 1 1/16 miles at River Downs on Sept. 1, then finished second to Eurosilver in the Grade 2 Lane's End Breeders' Futurity at 1 1/16 miles at Keeneland before heading to the Breeders' Cup, which was run at Santa Anita. Each of those starts came under trainer Elliott Walden.

Nicks was offered the job of private trainer for Team Valor the day after he opened a public stable in November. Nicks had spent more than a decade working for Mott, from 1989 through February 2003, and was briefly a jockey agent for Mark Guidry.

"Not very many people are fortunate enough to start out with this kind of an operation, these kind of horses," said Nicks, who will turn 37 on Thursday.

Nicks is excited about Tiger Hunt, as well as Shadowland, whose first start at Oaklawn will come next month in the $100,000 Southwest. Other quality runners in his barn include Added Edge, a past 2-year-old champion in Canada, and Destiny Bay, a 3-year-old filly by Mt. Livermore who was purchased for $275,000.

"We've got a few to run opening weekend, but we'll be more busy in February and March," said Nicks.

Nicks is no stranger to Oaklawn. "I was here on weekends from the time I was 8 years old to the time I went to work for Bill Mott," he said.

A native of nearby Avery, Texas, Nicks learned the ropes of racing from his father, trainer Morris Nicks. He even spent some time as a jockey, riding at Oaklawn from 1983 to 1986.

But when he had the chance to go to work for Mott, in Kentucky and Florida, he took it and gained valuable experience on a national stage, handling such horses as Cigar. It's a background that will serve him well as he goes down the Kentucky Derby trail with Tiger Hunt.

"We chose Ralph because he's the combination of a guy who's young, plus he's had the right kind of experience with the right kind of horses," said Irwin. "He's been around seven or eight different champions. We have a lot of confidence in him."

Irwin said one of the advantages of having a private trainer is that most of Team Valor's horses will be able to be in one place. Last year, Team Valor spread out its 40 or so horses among 20 different trainers. But this spring the focus will be on Tiger Hunt, Nicks, and Oaklawn Park.