03/18/2004 1:00AM

Two are unbeaten, but it's no match race


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - At first glance, the $200,000 at Oaklawn Park on Saturday looks like a showdown of two unbeaten colts - Smarty Jones, who is 4 for 4, and Purge, who is 2 for 2.

But, the race is not that simple. Add into the mix Mr. Jester, the nation's third-richest 2-year-old last year; Pro Prado and Proper Prado, a capable entry from the barn of Oaklawn kingpin Bob Holthus; Cryptograph, who is unbeaten around two turns; Kentucky Jockey Club runner-up Gran Prospect, who adds blinkers for this race; and the promising Maisie's Son and Archie B.

Now that's a horse race.

The Rebel, at 1 1/16 miles, is the first leg of the $5 million Centennial Bonus. The Oaklawn-sponsored bonus rewards the horse who can win the Rebel, the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 10, and the Kentucky Derby on May 1.

Mr. Jester has long been considered one of this region's top young horses. Based at Oaklawn, he comes into the Rebel on the heels of a trouble-filled second-place finish in the Grade 3 Risen Star at Fair Grounds on Feb. 15.

The favorite that day, Mr. Jester was forced to stop and start at key points in the race, responding each time he was asked for run. In deep stretch, he was game while being overtaken by a half-length by Gradepoint.

The trouble was costly. "It was more than a half-length," said Steve Wren, who trains Mr. Jester for Kaaren Biggs. "He came back good. It's all systems go."

The determination Mr. Jester showed in the Risen Star has been his trademark. First or second in his seven career starts, he won the $1 million Delta Jackpot last December, and also was placed first after a disqualification in the Grade 3 Kentucky Cup Juvenile at Turfway Park.

Mr. Jester earned $730,800 last year, third in national 2-year-old earnings behind Breeders' Cup winners Halfbridled, who earned $849,400, and Action This Day, $817,200.

Mr. Jester is an intelligent, composed horse who has matured and filled out since last year, said Wren. He could get a nice pace to track in the Rebel with the presence of Purge, who is making his two-turn debut, and Smarty Jones.

Smarty Jones has natural speed and figures to be prominent Saturday. He raced in second behind a hot pace in the $100,000 Southwest Stakes last out before overtaking the leader at the quarter pole and going on to a three-quarter-length win. The race was his first start in two months, and he has thrived since, according to his trainer, John Servis.

"I think he's made huge progress," he said. "I've seen some signs of him starting to mature. He's only run four times. He just acts to me like he's starting to figure it out. You can see him settling more. He wants to get down to business."

Smarty Jones earned a 105 Beyer Speed Figure last year for his 15-length win in the $60,000 Pennsylvania Futurity. The number equaled the highest given to a 2-year-old last year, and he followed that race up by winning his two-turn debut in January in the $84,000 Count Fleet at Aqueduct.

Stewart Elliott, who has been aboard Smarty Jones for all of his races, once again has the mount, while Kent Desormeaux will ride Mr. Jester for the first time.

Purge makes the move to two turns following an impressive entry-level allowance win at Gulfstream Park. He covered six furlongs in 1:09.40, and earned a 99 Beyer Speed Figure, the highest last-race number in the Rebel.

Purge raced in third early in his allowance score, then overtook the leaders to win by three lengths. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, said the horse's speed is manageable, but Pletcher knows that Purge will be prominent Saturday.

"He'll do whatever you ask of him," he said. "We hope to be in a forward position. He's coming out of sprints. He has natural speed."

Pletcher has given the mount to John Velazquez.