12/27/2004 12:00AM

Convention tossed in winter


STICKNEY, Ill. - This is no country for racehorses. At frozen Hawthorne in December, the tiny pellets of winterized racing surface fly back from hooves to sting faces of horses and riders alike. The horses who don't get pelted are the ones who tend to win. "Inside speed," the bettors mutter, huddled inside the grandstand.

Across the oval, a spectator can see the hot breath from each animal puffing into the frozen air during a race. Racedays, the lights come on just after 3 p.m. Morning training slows to a crawl. There is thick ice on the infield lagoon, and post parades commence with three minutes to race time. Why try to warm up when it's this cold?

Actually, it is forecast to be almost balmy on Wednesday in Stickney, where Hawthorne gets back to business in the final week of a long meet. Ten races are carded on a day when the temperature could hit 40. Get out the sun umbrellas.

With so few days left to enter, with no racing in Chicago until late March, and with the measure of controlled chaos that comes with northern wintertime racing, horsemen are ignoring convention and running whatever they can. Case in point is the featured ninth race Wednesday, a second-level Illinois-bred allowance carded for 6 1/2 furlongs. Of the 11 horses entered, five last ran in two-turn races, and four of them are confirmed route types. Two turns is not an option at the moment, and this is Hawthorne's longest one-turn distance. For middle-distance horses like Marion's Man, Icanmove, and Beamer'n Glick, the strategy is sit back, eat some dirt, and hope for the speed to start fading.

The race could fall to confirmed sprinter Camp Nagawicka, who seemed good enough last summer at Arlington to have cleared this state-bred restricted allowance condition races ago. Instead, Camp Nagawicka has been mired at the class level for five starts. Each time he turns in a peak performance, Camp Nagawicka runs into a horse who does him slightly better. Defense Motion, Storm the Beach, Shamuu, and Just See James are the winners of four recent Camp Nagawicka starts, and there is no horse of their talent entered in the Wednesday feature.

If the surface is promoting speed, Camp Nagawicka will have to run down Black Cadillac and Cat on the Grass, the two who figure to fight for the lead. Iron Rogue, a deep-closing sprinter, also rates as a contender, but must overcome a difficult outside draw.