01/19/2006 12:00AM

Usual Oaklawn trends may no longer apply

Lou Hodges Jr.
Horses exiting a good effort on Polytrack, such as Brass Hat, are often worth following.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Horseplayers preparing for the Oaklawn Park meet, which began Friday, need to study more than the past standings from the track to gain an edge this season. That's because this meet is expected to be markedly deeper than in the past.

With the abbreviated Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs concluding Sunday, Oaklawn is in the enviable position of being loaded with horses and horsemen.

Trainers such as Tom Amoss, Bobby Barnett, Bret Calhoun, Al Stall Jr., Michael Stidham, and Ronny Werner - guys who would have been at Fair Grounds had the track and city of New Orleans not been decimated by Hurricane Katrina - are expected to compete. Jockeys such as Robby Albarado, Calvin Borel, John Jacinto, and Larry Melancon should also be riding at Oaklawn.

Even for Oaklawn regulars, the experience figures to be different. Consider trainer Steve Asmussen, whose numbers figure to be up this season. Without Fair Grounds, he seems likely to spread his better horses between Oaklawn and Gulfstream, while also running lesser horses at smaller tracks such as Sunland Park and Sam Houston.

Then, of course, there is Cole Norman. Always a dominant trainer at Oaklawn, he had developed a reputation for winning at a higher percentage in the middle to late portions of the Oaklawn meet, after his horses had raced a time or two. Many believed this was because so many of his horses had not raced since Louisiana Downs in the late fall.

This year, following a short Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs, his horses don't figure to be short. They should be fit and ready.

The jockey standings also seem likely to differ from last year on many fronts. For starters, the colony is deeper.

Last year, seven riders finished within eight wins of the leader, with Jeremy Rose edging second-place Calvin Borel and third-place Luis Quinonez for the top spot. Part of Rose's success last year was due to the success of Afleet Alex - not only in the victories he had aboard the colt, but also in the attention he received as his regular jockey.

John McKee, the leading rider at Oaklawn in 2004, might similarly benefit this year if the multiple stakes-winning Lawyer Ron continues his ascent up the 3-year-old ranks with McKee in the irons.

With Rose riding in Florida, the door is open further in the race for leading rider. McKee, Roman Chapa, and Robby Albarado are favorites.

My choice for leading rider is Albarado, the perennial leader at Fair Grounds. He seems most likely to benefit with important mounts picked up from the new stables, plus he is a "national name," which should make him a desired commodity. He was also a riding champion at Oaklawn in 1996 and 1997.

As for the racing product itself, it ought to be top-notch. Daily purses are forecast at $275,000, and - following the success of Afleet Alex and Smarty Jones in the Triple Crown races - the stakes program only figures to improve, as more people seek to utilize a successful schedule to prep their horses.

Some angles I intend to play this meet:

* Expect big things from Neil Howard, particularly toward the second half of the meet.

When Fair Grounds canceled its regular meet, some thought Howard would head south to Florida, where he based his stable in the winter not long ago. Instead he opted to go to Oaklawn. No doubt he hopes to emulate the success he had prepping horses at Fair Grounds for bigger stakes engagements down the road. Remember that Mineshaft, the 2003 Horse of the Year, got his first stakes chances at Fair Grounds.

* Slightly favor horses breaking from inside posts.

Last year, post 1 was the winningest post in routes, post 2 the winningest in sprints. In terms of middle to outside posts, they won at about the same rate.

* Give horses coming off efforts on Polytrack a long look.

Brass Hat won the New Orleans Handicap at Louisiana Downs off a stakes win at Turfway Park, and other horses coming off races there may win at Oaklawn. The Polytrack is regarded as being a forgiving surface - which could leave these runners in better health. At the very least, they're probably good bets for no other reason than they exit large fields. Field size at Turfway averaged 10.4 starters during the Holiday meet, and due to that depth, wins and on-the-board finishes were harder to come by.

* Look for live contenders at overlaid prices among Larry Jones-trained runners.

Jones had to leave his base at Ellis Park in November following a tornado, making him an early arrival to Oaklawn. Since that time he has been gearing up for this meet, and my guess is that his horses are eager to run after a short break. Most of his horses haven't blown through conditions since the Keeneland fall meet, setting them up to be well placed at Oaklawn.