03/02/2006 1:00AM

'Chronic' gives dirt a try

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STICKNEY, Ill. - Since Shannon Ritter ended a long tenure as an assistant to former trainer Elliott Walden and took out her own trainer's license last year, two things in her operation have been consistent: Wins, and a struggle to maintain a viable number of horses.

Ritter's stable numbered just six at the conclusion of the Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs in late January. When the string becomes that short, it's getting down to basic survival time. Then the phone rang. It was Walden, who helps manage the sprawling equine holdings of WinStar Farm.

"Elliott called and said he had four to send up to Hawthorne," said Ritter. "I said, 'I'm on my way.' "

Ritter started two horses during the opening week of the National Jockey Club meet, and both won - not a tremendous surprise considering that her record as a head trainer stands now at 9 victories from 47 starters and that Ritter has proven adept at pointing a certain horse to a certain spot.

But Saturday, in the featured seventh race at Hawthorne, Ritter is undertaking an experiment rather than performing a surgical strike. Her horse for the race, Load a Chronic, has run exclusively on grass since being claimed for $30,000 last July, but since grass racing in Chicago is not an option until sometime in April, Ritter will give Load a Chronic a test run on dirt Saturday. He was one of seven horses entered in a third-level allowance that has a $35,000 claiming option.

Load a Chronic used to be a main-track horse, having posted one win on dry dirt, one on wet. He won a second-level turf allowance near the end of the Fair Grounds meet after coming close in several tries at the class level and worked a fairly smart five furlongs last Saturday at Hawthorne.

"He actually has some speed, and I think he can lay anywhere," Ritter said. And having watched pace horses dominate racing here during opening week, Ritter may suggest to jockey Eddie Razo that he try to position Load a Chronic as close to the front end as he can.

That may not be too difficult. The race is populated mainly by closers such as Mr. King Pin, Air Academy, and Dress for Success. Marion's Man can stay close, but has finished second twice as many times as he has won. The horse to keep close tabs on may be Restless Mon, who prepped for this spot in a higher-level Mountaineer Park allowance race on Jan. 29.