05/03/2002 12:00AM

Chicago racing makes a quick visit


CHICAGO - Blink, and you might miss the spring meeting at Hawthorne Race Course.

The Illinois Racing Board shook up the local racing calendar last year and assigned Hawthorne a split season, a slightly longer meet in the fall and winter and a shorter one in the spring. This spring, the emphasis is on short. Hawthorne's meet that begins Sunday includes only 23 racing days, seven fewer than last spring.

"I'm looking forward to making a springtime splash," said Hawthorne president and general manager Thomas Carey III. "But the fragmentation of these meets is detrimental. I always feel like the handicappers take some time to get a hold of the meet. I wish we could get some kind of continuity and longevity."

At times, Hawthorne has seemed reluctant to embrace change. But last year the track opened its turf course earlier than ever before, introduced a guaranteed pick six pool, and offered reduced takeout rates. The guaranteed pick six is history now, but the reduced takeout remains. Excepting bets made at Illinois OTB's, takeout is 15 percent on straight wagers, and between 18.5 and 23 percent on exotics.

The 100-yard shift in scene from Sportsman's to Hawthorne means no more long walks for backstretch employees and horses from the Hawthorne barns to Sportsman's, which has no backstretch of its own. It also has no turf course, so Hawthorne's opening signals Chicago's first grass races of the year. Hawthorne will rely heavily on the grass to help fill cards, because Sportsman's has run at least nine dirt races in 20 of the last 24 days.

The grass is put immediately to use Sunday with the $45,000 Nicole Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles. The Nicole favorite is Ioya Two, the Illinois-bred mare who captured the Grade 3 Modesty Handicap at Arlington last summer.

Ioya Two finished third in her two starts this year, first when she encountered trouble in the Hillsborough at Tampa and most recently in the Stravinsky at Keeneland, a race too short for her.

"Mostly, I want to keep her going to Arlington," said Chris Block, who trains the 7-year-old Ioya Two for his family. "I just want to have a couple races under her belt."

Even at slightly less than her peak, Ioya Two should prove difficult to handle Sunday. Golden Antigua and Soccory, who has not raced in

16 months, have the best chance at an upset.

Hawthorne's Thoroughbred meet concludes June 4, and three days later the track will begin conducting 37 successive nights of harness racing, which hasn't been staged at Hawthorne since 1997.

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