02/26/2004 1:00AM

Contreras returns without missing a beat


STICKNEY, Ill. - Injuries are never good, but if ever there was an opportune time for a jockey to incur one, Cruz Contreras found it.

On Jan. 3, Contreras, 21, suffered a severe knee contusion in a starting-gate accident at Hawthorne. Contreras finished the race but required immediate medical attention afterward.

But because Jan. 3 was the final day of the Hawthorne winter meet - and the traditional eight-week break in live action on the Chicago circuit followed - Contreras had plenty of time to recover before the National Jockey Club-at-Hawthorne meet was to begin Friday. If the injury had occurred at a more inconvenient time, Contreras might have lost much of the momentum he had gained at the end of the winter meet - and no Hawthorne jockey was hotter in December than Contreras.

"The knee has healed all the way, and he's been back exercising horses," said Tom Morgan, the veteran Chicago agent who represents Contreras, a seven-pound apprentice. "You hate to see anybody get hurt, but the way this turned out, we did get a little lucky."

Contreras, who rode his first winner last May at the NJC meet, won with 17 of 91 mounts at the winter meet. He rode only the last three weeks of the winter meet because immigration problems delayed his return to the U.S. from his homeland of Mexico for more than three months. Unfortunately for Contreras and Morgan, the lost time cannot be recouped in regard to the expiration of his apprenticeship - only hardships due to injury, military service, or school work are accepted - but Contreras will most likely be granted an extension equal to the time he missed with the knee injury.

"We had planned on going to Turfway Park when Hawthorne ended, but obviously we had to scrap that," said Morgan.

As Chicago horsemen prepared this week for the start of the 47-day NJC meet, many predicted that Contreras could potentially have such a big meet that he stands a decent chance to be the leading rider. Contreras will face strong competition from accomplished veterans such as Randy Meier, Larry Sterling Jr., and Chris Emigh, but he already seems to be starting out with the right karma.

"We've got some business that hopefully will get us off to a good start," Morgan said. "Plus it never hurts to have a little luck on your side."

Hansen carries on as head trainer

Andy Hansen is still quietly attending to his backstretch chores, just as he has for the last 14 years. But this year is different: Hansen is now the head trainer of a string of horses formerly trained by his longtime boss, Gene Cilio, who died Nov. 22 at age 74.

"We all miss Gene," Hansen said. "He was great to me and to a lot of other people. But we have to carry on, and the best way to do that is to keep this stable a successful one."

Hansen, 40, has 26 horses in Barn F at Hawthorne, a similar number to what Cilio typically had in Chicago at this time of year. Another string of the Cilio horses is currently based at Fair Grounds with another of Cilio's former longtime assistants, Greg Geier. Last weekend, Out of My Way upset the Taylor's Special Handicap for Geier and owner Crown's Way Farm.

Cilio's younger brother, Ron DiCecilia, was Cilio's partner in many facets of the horse business. DiCecilia heads Crown's Way, an Ocala, Fla.-based operation where many of the Cilio runners were bred and raised. Hansen said he said DiCecilia have discussed possible changes in the wake of Cilio's death, "and right now we're going on as if Gene was still here," Hansen said.

Hansen said that, besides Crown's Way, Cilio had "about eight to 10" outside clients.

"Ron told me that of the ones he's talked to, they've said they're maintaining their allegiance," Hansen said.

Late next month, Geier will return to Hawthorne with his string, and the horses will run in Hansen's name until Hawthorne ends May 11. At Arlington Park, where the stable area opens April 26, the horses will run in Geier's name.

"Either way doesn't matter," Hansen said. "We just want to do good."

Smith was 'one of the best around'

Along with Cilio, the Chicago racing community is missing another training icon: Jere R. Smith Sr., who died Jan. 14 at 63.

Smith, who began his training career in the late 1950's at Beulah Park, had been a Chicago fixture for nearly 40 years. Although he kept mostly to himself and was often regarded as something of a curmudgeon who always was chomping on his trademark cigar, Smith earned the utmost respect of his fellow horsemen for his ability to maximize a horse's potential.

"J.R. was one of the best around," said trainer Pat Cuccurullo, who regularly swapped horses with Smith by way of the claim box. "After a while I just said I'm done taking horses from him. He got all the run he could out of them."

Smith had about 40 horses at the time of his death. Some were turned over to his son, trainer Jere R. Smith, Jr., who currently is stabled at Turfway, and some were sold. Also, one of Smith's longtime clients, Richard Trebat, turned his horses over to trainer Frank Kirby.

Replay show 'Thoroughbred Today' renewed

Hawthorne and Arlington issued a joint press release last week announcing the renewal of their nightly television replay show through the end of 2005. "Thoroughbred Today" airs each racing day at 10 p.m. on local cable channel ChicagoLand Television (CLTV).

The extension is meaningful because there was no replay in Chicago for several years, until CLTV began airing "Thoroughbred Today" in May 2002. The program is hosted by Jim "Slimmy" Miller and Peter Galassi at Hawthorne, and by John G. Dooley and Christine Gabriel at Arlington.

Chicago racing also has a weekly magazine show, produced and hosted by Joe Kristufek. "Horsin' Around TV" airs on Fox SportsNet each Saturday at 10:30 a.m. Central.

* Hawthorne is once again offering the "Chi Town Challenge," a free online handicapping contest with $5,000 in cash prizes. The contest begins Friday, March 5. For more information, log on to www.hawthorneracecourse.com.