09/18/2007 11:00PM

Back to dirt, with a new mix

EmailSTICKNEY, Ill. - Look across the Arlington Park racetrack and you see a long line of willow trees. Look across Hawthorne Race Course and you see a line of smokestacks. But this year, as the scene shifts from suburban Arlington back to urban Hawthorne, the focus isn't on what sits around the properties, but the surface that lies atop their ovals.

Gone is Arlington's gray Polytrack, and back is Hawthorne's tan dirt - but with some tweaks. In a nod to the fact that during dry, cold conditions the main track here has played something like a beach, Hawthorne has added more clay and a different type of sand, and they should help the surface hold moisture. The hope is that the dirt will be better than in past years - but for many, just getting back onto a dirt track will be good enough.

"I like it over here, and I think the horses like it over here, too," said Roger Brueggemann, who won the training title this past spring, going 25 for 103, but scored only eight victories during Arlington's season.

It's not just the dirt track that may be different than in past years, but the turf course, too. Assistant general manager Jim Miller said Hawthorne has installed a new turf drainage system that will pump water into the infield lagoon. The course should be more efficiently aerated, and the hope is that the grass will now dry more quickly, and can be used further into the fall and with greater frequency.

Hawthorne's 1,950 stalls are full going into Friday's opening day - the first of 73 racing days this meet - and field size has never been an issue at the fall meet, even when the calendar flips to December and many stables have departed for warmer climes. There were 93 horses - an average of 9.3 per race - entered on Friday's 10-race card. The feature is race 6, a competitive second-level turf allowance, but also worth watching is race 1, a 2-year-old entry-level allowance sprint.

First post has been moved back this fall to 1:35 p.m. Central from 1:10, an effort to steer as far as possible from major East Coast tracks. And while there will be plenty of low-level claimers seen in Stickney, Hawthorne still hopes to lure Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense to the Sept. 29 Hawthorne Gold Cup.

Chris Emigh should have a good chance to defend his riding title from last fall, but Israel Ocampo, who led the spring meet, may push him. Some new trainers on the circuit - notably Jamie Ness and Justin Evans - could give the product a boost, and Steve Asmussen, who skipped last season, is back with 40 head of horses.