12/20/2005 1:00AM

Bellator a risky bet in the end


CHICAGO - At the start of the Hawthorne fall-winter season, Frank Kirby's stable was exceedingly slow, but as the weather has gotten colder, Kirby has gotten warmer.

On Dec. 1, Kirby's Hawthorne record stood at 5 for 87, but Kirby has since saddled 5 winners and 5 place horses from only 35 starters. He has won with maidens, layoff horses - and in Thursday's featured first race at Hawthorne, Kirby will try to win a dirt race with a grass horse.

It almost happened last time for Bellator, who raced exclusively on turf all spring and summer, but returned to the main track Nov. 30 at Hawthorne and finished second by a neck in a second-level, two-turn dirt allowance race. is right back at the same condition in Thursday's first, and in a short six-horse field he has drawn the rail, often an advantageous spot in Hawthorne route races.

There is, however, one catch, and that is Bellator's career record. On the cusp of his fourth birthday, Bellator has made 19 starts. He has finished second five times, but won only twice. Bellator appears to try hard, but only to a certain extent. When it comes time to finish off a race, he may not produce, and when Bellator did clear his first allowance condition, he did so by only a nose.

Bellator ought to be favored Thursday, and bettors must decide whether to take the short price. The options are not obviously appealing. Three opponents exit the same race as Bellator: , in from Kentucky for trainer Nick Canani, and Corpus Sand, who starts fresh off a $25,000 claim by trainer Roger Brueggeman.

has been racing in claimers restricted to 3-year-olds, but he is a horse with no inhibitions about winning. In 16 starts this year, Corpus Sand has racked up a remarkable 7 wins, scoring in sprints, routes, and a one-turn mile at Arlington.

Awesomewithbroads went to the lead last time and may do so again from post 6, but he doesn't figure to steal the race. Perhaps the horse with the best chance at an upset is Oak Forest, who made a bid for the lead at the top of the stretch last time before flattening out late. Oak Forest had raced only once since September and twice since last February, and it's possible he is prepared for a peak effort.