12/05/2008 12:00AM

Emigh giving title bid his best shot


STICKNEY, Ill. - Chris Emigh is a successful, well-established, 38-year-old jockey with multiple riding titles and a family. A different sort of person might be lying low this time of year, spending some time with the kids, maybe even kicking back on a Caribbean beach. But no, there was Emigh on a bitter-cold Thursday and Friday in Chicago, riding for all he was worth over a frozen racetrack at Hawthorne.

Through Thursday's racing, Emigh held a slim one-win lead over youngster Inez Karlsson in the Hawthorne jockey standings. And winning the title again this winter actually seems to mean something to Emigh. While Emigh plans to return to Oaklawn Park this winter, he said he'll continue to ride at Hawthorne, and even shuttle between Chicago and Arkansas if the riding crown is on the line.

"It's the competitive side of me wanting to be leading rider, I guess," Emigh said shortly before the first race Friday at Hawthorne, where it was 8 degrees at 8 a.m. "When I'm here, I want to be the top man."

Emigh looked like a strong bet to win the fall-winter riding title here last year, but was beaten out by Tim Thornton. That result might be driving Emigh to some extent this winter, but Emigh said the "I'll show them" attitude has a much longer history.

"They always told me I'd never be a jockey growing up," Emigh said. "It was my twin brother who was supposed to be the big-time rider, and I was supposed to be the stall-cleaner."

Emigh's brother, Aaron, did ride for quite some time in Louisiana, where he later became a steward. Now, he works at a chemical plant.

Chemicals are something one doesn't get on the Hawthorne racetrack, even when the thermometer drops well below freezing. Jim Miller, Hawthorne's assistant general manager, said Hawthorne - unlike many other northern winter venues - doesn't treat its dirt with anti-freezing agents. Rather, during periods of extreme cold, the track maintenance crew works through the night to crush up the frozen dirt and harrow it into training and racing condition. After a couple days, Miller said, the dirt has been worked into a dusty, frozen powder. Little cushion remains underneath, and the surface - as happened Thursday - gets lightning-fast.

Emigh, who has ridden here for some 18 years, has seen it all before.

"The rail was frozen most of the day," Emigh said of Thursday's races. "That's the only way you could pass early in the card - getting to the fence was the key. By the end of the day, when the sun went down, the whole thing was frozen."

Racing at Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Ark., - where it can be cold, but not this cold - is not far off. Still, Emigh has made it through plenty of Hawthorne winters past.

"It's pretty cold, but it's not that bad," he said. "It doesn't kill you."

Williamson takes lead

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new leader: With three straight winners on Thursday's card, Brian Williamson took over the top spot among Hawthorne trainers, with 18 wins to Wayne Catalano's 17.

Williamson had a humdrum summer at Arlington, but has picked up the pace considerably at Hawthorne.

"When we got over here, a lot of horses started going good," Williamson said.

Exhibit A in Williamson's Polytrack-to-dirt renaissance was a Wednesday winner, Best Buddy, who managed to finish third in the Springfield Stakes in June at Arlington, but who suffered declining form thereafter. Improving through three Hawthorne starts, Best Buddy knocked off the sharp Its Never to Late in the Wednesday feature, scoring by more than a length to run his wet-track record to 3 for 3.

"He just drags that jock around there every time the track is muddy," Williamson said.

Best Buddy sits right on the cusp of being an Illinois-bred-stakes horse. Having run through three allowance conditions now, Best Buddy will need to find a rarely carded fourth-level allowance, or Williamson will have to face a stakes-or-claiming dilemma. That could come at Oaklawn Park, where Williamson will have 10 to 15 horses this winter, a change in his routine. Williamson said he last was at Oaklawn about 20 years ago, when he was an assistant to his father-in-law, trainer Harvey Vanier.

* Two allowance races, one for second-level Illinois-breds (race 4), the other for open entry-level allowance types (race 7) headline Sunday's nine-race program. A warming trend is forecast: The mercury might even creep into the mid 20s.