10/29/2001 1:00AM

Chicago horsemen welcome Hawthorne


STICKNEY, Ill. - The palatial suburban splendor of Arlington Park is gone for this year. Ringed with grape vines, and the host of the first million-dollar horse race, Arlington has been left behind for the gritty urban area that houses Hawthorne Race Course.

And that's just fine with many local horsemen.

Arlington is the glamour meet of Illinois, but it's a tough place to win races. All of the higher-profile local stables, many of which winter out of town, point for the Arlington meet, and in July there's a huge influx of higher-class runners from the Kentucky circuit. It all conspires to make things difficult for many outfits that lack either the numbers or the quality to succeed at Arlington.

Beyond that, Arlington Heights is far from an ideal spot for stable help. At Hawthorne, many of the Mexican-American backstretch workers have strong ties to the community. Trainer Jan Ely said her employees were scrambling to be among the first wave to return to Hawthorne this fall. "It's just a better community for people around Hawthorne and Sportsman's," Ely said.

It's a better place for people like Ely to win races, too. "I've been so short of stalls at Arlington that I ended up just turning a lot of horses out," said Ely. "I've got a lot of them back and ready to run, and I think I'll have a good Hawthorne meet."

This cyclical flow in the racing calendar is something successful stables factor into their long-term plans.

Trainer Mike Reavis, for instance, won races at a 29 percent clip here last fall and finished as the leading trainer. At the recently concluded Arlington meet, he won at a 12 percent clip. For Reavis and others, Hawthorne and Sportsman's are the important meets.

"At Arlington, with Jerry Hollendorfer there, with Wayne Catalano there, I knew it would be tough," Reavis said. "Those two plus Kentucky horses it makes it tough."

Reavis, like other trainers, said Hawthorne is a track where fresh horses have an advantage. It's not difficult, he said, to win a lower-level allowance race here with the right mid-level claiming horse. Also, there are many more spots for claiming horses that have conditions.

Reavis has some Hawthorne specialists ready to run, but because Hawthorne's meet is only two months long this year, he doesn't anticipate being as strong as he was last year.

"I had a lot of horses I laid up during Arlington," he said. "If I start getting them ready now, then I only get to run once here." Instead, Reavis will start focusing on the Sportsman's meet in the early spring.

Hugh Robertson finished second behind Reavis here last fall, and though Robertson had a strong Arlington meet, he has fresh reserves for Hawthorne.

"It's a considerably different meet at Hawthorne," Robertson said.

Robertson's Hawthorne stock will consist of some horses that were at Arlington, but he also will be bringing in 2-year-olds that had been turned out as well as fresh claiming horses from Canterbury Park, where Robertson sent his overflow this summer.

"If you get a fresh horse with conditions, you'll win a race or two pretty quick here," he said.

Frank Kirby, who has many horses to run at Hawthorne, won only 10 of the 146 races he entered at Arlington.

"From Sportsman's to Hawthorne [in the spring] it's the same," he said. "From Hawthorne to Arlington, you need allowance conditions and higher-priced claimers. From Arlington to Hawthorne, you need more conditioned claimers. The higher-priced claimers don't have the same opportunities.

"I enjoy racing at all the Chicago tracks," Kirby said. But he also echoed the feelings of many Chicago trainers. "I do look forward to coming back down here."