12/02/2005 12:00AM

Backstretch morning a distinctly chilly scene

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STICKNEY, Ill. - At 6:56 a.m. on Friday morning at O'Hare airport, the temperature was 14 degrees, the wind was out of the west at a brisk 12 miles per hour - with an emphasis on brisk. Twenty-four miles away, at Hawthorne Race Course, people were not just outside in the cold, they were outside riding horses around in the cold.

Nobody notices winter racing at a northern venue more than exercise riders. Their job does not change just because flesh is getting stuck to metal, and the infield lagoon is begging for a backstretch ice hockey league.

Riders who come to Arlington for the summer before disappearing south before the leaves turn tend to ask year-rounders the same question.

"Almost everybody wants to know how you can handle the winter," said Max Quinonez, an exercise rider for Hawthorne trainer Jerry Gryczewski, and a member of the gate crew here. "I handle it real good."

Quinonez resides in the camp that lives comfortably with the cold. He used to work in Florida, and said he prefers cold winters to humid weather. But there is a faction that has not yet learned to bear up.

"Yeah, it was cold today," trainer Chris Richard said at noon Friday, adding a couple of choice adjectives. "I was not happy."

Richard is from Lake Charles, La., and is spending his first winter at Hawthorne only months after taking out his trainer's license. He does not currently employ a gallop rider, and gets on about 10 horses every morning.

"My feet and my hands were totally numb after the first set," said Richard.

Richard said he has purchased high-end winter gear, $40 gloves, insulated pants - the works. "It helps, but it's still cold. I've got every advanced piece of technology on my body, and I'm still cold."

Phil Kasperski, who works now for his brother, trainer Joe Kasperski, has been galloping here for 19 years. Friday morning, he wore a T-shirt, a thermal undershirt, a turtleneck, a sweatshirt, another T-shirt, and his riding vest out. He dons heavy scuba gloves, pulls a face mask over his head, and puts on ski goggles.

"I'm covered," Kasperski said. "The first horse I work, my hands might be cold, but after that I'm good."

Out on the track, Kasperski sees newcomers to the circuit shiver and ache. "What I say to people is, 'Welcome to Chicago racing.' "

Public slow to warm to Celluloid Hero

Hugh Robertson is one of the better-known Chicago horse trainers, and his horses, especially young ones in maiden and allowance races, tend to be bet accordingly. But most of the betting public has not participated in the two-race win streak put together by the 2-year-old colt Celluloid Hero. Celluloid Hero broke slowly and finished a distant fifth in his career debut Oct. 15 at Hawthorne, and a month later he won a maiden sprint race at 9-1. Wednesday, in an entry-level allowance race with a $50,000 claiming option, Celluloid Hero was almost completely dismissed, going off at 21-1, and he won again, showing better speed and prevailing by three-quarters of a length in a fairly fast race.

"I don't know how they let him go off that high," said Robertson. "I don't bet much, but I even threw a few dollars on him. I liked him all the time. I always thought he was my best 2-year-old this year."

Celluloid Hero can run: Robertson thinks he could turn out to be a stakes horse, and will improve once he starts racing around two turns. For now, he is best-known for his personality.

"We call him widow-maker, he's hurt so many people," Robertson said. "He's settled down some now, but he was real bad. We finally castrated him after he hurt a couple boys. He wasn't mean, but he was absolutely terrible out on the racetrack. You just never knew what he was going to do. That's why we run him in those full cup blinkers and the shadow roll."

Plans aren't certain yet for Celluloid Hero. Robertson said he could go to Oaklawn Park if he progresses off this week's race.

Alternatives in feature

There are nine in Sunday's featured eighth race, a second-level allowance at 6 1/2 furlongs. Wise Diplomat has been second by a neck or less three times at this class level.

He may break through this time at a short price, but there are other alternatives, like Angelic Morgan L., Frenchburg, and even Pentelicus Dance, a filly facing males.