02/06/2007 12:00AM

Winter takes toll, but no changes planned

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Oaklawn will resume racing on Thursday after losing last week's four cards to inclement weather that left the racing surface frozen. In the mountain resort town of Hot Springs, temperatures can be erratic. Last year, Oaklawn lost Presidents Day weekend because of a winter storm, but prior to that, there had been no weather-related cancellations here since 2003.

Oaklawn's track is not winterized. No chemicals, such as salts, are used to keep the track from freezing.

"We're very much opposed to it," said Eric Jackson, general manager of Oak-lawn, "because we think chemicals have a detrimental impact on the track, long-run, and they have a detrimental impact on horses as well."

Chemicals in a track surface can dry out horses' feet, leaving them cracked.

Other tracks, such as Turfway Park and Woodbine, have installed synthetic surfaces to help them race more consistently in colder weather. But Oaklawn is not considering such a change. Management believes a dirt surface best suits its 3-year-old program.

"Polytrack may or may not be the best thing since sliced bread," Jackson said. "But, at the end of the day, we want the horse that comes out of here to run in the Triple Crown to be running on a surface similar to what they're running the Triple Crown on."

For now, Jackson is hoping temperatures remain warm.

"We're not out of winter yet," he said. "We still have a month to go that we worry about this."

Oaklawn is boosting the purses of all overnight races by $1,000 each for the remainder of the meet, with the funds coming from the four days of lost racing. The track has also brought back last week's canceled stakes, the $50,000 King Cotton, for Friday. There is about $600,000 in funds to be distributed, said Jackson.

"It was [the racing office's] recommendation that we take the net purse money from last week and go ahead and put it right now back into the remaining purses," said Jackson. "So, from a horsemen's perspective, it didn't cost them a nickel."

Oaklawn will not make up the days lost, but a 10th race will be added to select cards, Jackson said.

Weather shapes Essex

The winter storm that forced the cancellation of racing here is having an impact on the shape of the field for the Grade 3, $100,000 Essex Handicap on Saturday. Steppenwolfer will not make the race because the storm led to missed training time for him, while Red Raymond, trained by Bob Holthus, has joined the fray because the storm canceled the allowance he was to run in last Friday.

Steppenwolfer was to make his seasonal debut in the Essex, but he was not nominated to the race after his training schedule was disrupted. There were three days of lost training here, and limited training on another date because of the storm.

"We couldn't get done what we wanted because of the weather," said Dan Peitz, who trains Steppenwolfer. "If you can't train, you can't run. It's not the end of the world. It's a long year. The Essex, in the whole scheme of things, wasn't a race that we had to make."

Peitz said Steppenwolfer could instead make his first start of the year in the Grade 3, $150,000 Razorback Breeders' Cup Handicap here March 9. He last raced in June, when fourth in the Belmont Stakes. His long-term goal is the Breeders' Cup.

Kid Grindstone, winner of the $75,000 Tenacious at Fair Grounds, is based at Oaklawn and also was not nominated to the Essex. Trainer Mike Campbell said Kid Grindstone was given 30 days off after his win, and as a result of the time off, as well as the missed training here because of the weather, it became too tight to make the Essex.

"In order to make Feb. 10, we had to have everything go right," he said.

Besides Red Raymond, other probables for the 1 1/16-mile Essex include Jonesboro, who could start as the 116-pound highweight; Rotary; and Commander Buck.

Sandburr, a multiple stakes winner, is also being considered for the Essex, said his trainer, Mike Stidham.

"We're entered over here at the Fair Grounds in the Mineshaft already, but we're also looking at that race, too," he said. "We may even enter in that and make a decision on Thursday."

Entries for the Essex were to close Wednesday.