04/17/2007 12:00AM

Always close, rarely there

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CHICAGO - In Chicago racing circles, the names Reavis and Sterling have been commingled through years of joint success on the circuit, especially at Hawthorne.

But rather than ride at Hawthorne this spring, jockey Larry Sterling raced through the recent end of the Oaklawn season. And even late last year, before Sterling left town, trainer Mike Reavis was turning more than occasionally to jockeys not named Sterling. Reavis had a spell of winners with Uriel Lopez, but it has been veteran jockey Jerry LaSala who has most benefited from the perhaps temporary Reavis-Sterling sundering.

LaSala has won with 24 of the 70 mounts Reavis has given him the last two calendar years at Hawthorne, and the new partnership has proved especially fruitful this Hawthorne meet, during which both LaSala and Reavis have 15 winners. In Thursday's featured third race, a third-level allowance, Reavis and LaSala have the likely favorite, Otis Ridge, who faces five rivals over 1 1/16 miles on dirt.

LaSala never has ridden Otis Ridge before, and the task rarely has been entirely satisfying. Otis Ridge actually has won three times since July, but two wins last summer came on turf, and Otis Ridge's 3-for-21 dirt record belies his tendency to yield late to more determined foes. He coughed up a lead at the stretch call here March 29 and finished third, and has suffered several losses in Chicago. Otis Ridge's last seven defeats have come by fewer than 18 lengths combined. He usually is close to the winner, but very often is not the winner.

Otis Ridge might do best making one quick late run, but LaSala could find himself on a clear early lead from an inside post if the race shakes out as it appears on paper. There is a distinct void of early speed entered, and the tactical speed Otis Ridge often shows might land him ahead of the rest of the field in the first quarter-mile.

Touch Em All is another candidate to make the early lead, but he tends even more strongly than Otis Ridge to suffer close losses. Cub's Power shows only starts on Turfway Polytrack and Ellis Park turf. He has been in good form for at least a year, but that form might not translate to success in this spot. Deep closers Cape Fox, Systematic Saint, and Mt. Crafty could easily be troubled by the race's apparent lack of speed.