09/28/2009 11:00PM

Ability on dirt could trump Arlington form


STICKNEY, Ill. - All the major California tracks employ synthetic surfaces. Almost all East Coast tracks are dirt. When horses move from venue to venue in those places, there's continuity, but Chicago presents a different kind of deal. When racing shifts from five months at Arlington Park to Hawthorne Race Course on Thursday, the horse population moves from Polytrack to old-fashioned dirt, and it is the rare animal equally adept on both surfaces.

"I tried to get everything I could a work over the track," said year-round Chicago trainer Andy Hansen, one of the horsemen that shipped horses to Hawthorne before Arlington's meet ended Sunday. "I think it really makes a difference."

So, handicappers digging into early-meet racing may be well advised to rank recent Arlington form as less important than proven dirt ability and perhaps published Hawthorne drills in September. And a quick glance at the work tabs from the last couple weeks suggests that the traditionally deep, tiring Hawthorne surface might play a little differently in fall 2009. This is the first time in seven years that Hawthorne hasn't taken the Thoroughbred track up for summer harness racing.

"I think it's more of a tighter, faster racetrack this year," veteran Hawthorne trainer Frank Kirby said. "They're probably getting a better hold of it now."

Needless to say, the Hawthorne surface is heavily dependent on weather, and the weather at the fall-winter stand will change drastically before this meet ends in early January. All the noteworthy stakes action is therefore loaded onto the early dates, with Saturday's Hawthorne Gold Cup card by far the most important of the season.

And before it gets too dark and cold, Hawthorne will experiment with a couple twilight programs, with post time on Oct. 9 and Oct. 16 scheduled for 5:30 p.m.

The Hawthorne fall meet used to have some of the largest fields anywhere, and even though numbers have tailed off, Hawthorne averaged a solid 8.65 starters per race last fall. A total of 84 horses were entered on Thursday's nine-race card, with even more in for Friday. Jim Miller, Hawthorne's assistant general manager, said he expected to have 1,950 horses on the grounds by opening day. Average daily purses here will come in at the same level as spring 2009, about $172,000 per day, including stakes money.

Nothing like a stakes exists on Thursday's program, but the only allowance race of the day, an entry-level sprint for Illinois-breds carded as race 7, did draw 10 horses. Richard Hazelton sends out Wedgewood, who had a decent Arlington meet and looks well spotted to clear this allowance condition.