10/04/2005 12:00AM

Calhoun filly looks ready to keep barn hot


CHICAGO - It's natural to think "Southwest" when the trainer Bret Calhoun comes up. Calhoun's a Texan, and he's had great success racing in Texas and Louisiana. Hawthorne Race Course sits in the southwest part of central Chicago; perhaps that's why Calhoun has settled in here with a stronger string than in previous seasons.

A hop, skip, and jump into this meet, Calhoun has sent out two winners and three second-place finishers, and he has an excellent chance to win Thursday's featured fourth race with an Illinois-bred filly named Lucky Gambler. The race, at 1 1/16 miles on dirt, is for third-level allowance horses or $35,000 claimers, and though it is open to all such horses, Illinois-breds make up half the six-horse field.

season has been solid as a rock, with three wins, more than $82,000 in earnings, and no finish worse than third in nine starts. She was in the Mike Reavis barn this spring when she cleared her second Illinois allowance condition, winning by 14 lengths. Rather than try for an open third-level allowance, Reavis ran her back for an $18,000 tag; Lucky Gambler won by 14 again, and spent the next five starts in Jerry Gryczewski's barn, having been snatched up for the $18,000.

Calhoun's owner, Carl Moore Management, claimed her for $35,000 out of a third-place finish Aug. 7 at Arlington, and now Lucky Gambler looks ready to win an open allowance.

On Sept. 9 she made her first start off the claim, finishing a close second in a $10,000 starter allowance on turf, and though Lucky Gambler, 4, is by the sire Barkerville, whose offspring often prefer grass, she is a better horse on dirt. The Calhoun barn - the Chicago string of which is usually overseen by assistant trainer Peaches Geier - gave her a half-mile breeze over the Hawthorne surface last week, but we already know Lucky Gambler likes it here, since 4 of her 6 career victories have come on the local surface. She has post 1, jockey Chris Emigh, and the tactical speed to stay in touch with the lone confirmed front-runner, Balla Twine.

would have won this race for fun during the first half of 2004. Used to be if you gave her a clear early lead, especially in a Hawthorne route, you were not going to catch Balla Twine. At age 7, she has lost some of her early zip and more than a couple steps off her best form, but Balla Twine still should show more than she did in her last couple starts at Arlington, both dismal.

Expendable, Illini Queen, , and Turbulent Thinking are the others, and a case could be made for about all of them, too.