03/03/2006 1:00AM

Entries slow after fast start

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CHICAGO - Six was the magic number when entries were drawn Friday for Sunday's program of racing at the National Jockey Club meet at Hawthorne. Of the nine races on the card, five of them attracted just six entries - not so magical after all.

After a busy first two days of this meet, which began Feb. 24, the pace of entries has slowed to a crawl, with especially short fields last Monday and Tuesday, and while 10- and nine-horse fields finish off the Sunday card, the average number of entries per race was just more than seven.

But short fields consistently have been the order of the day as the start of the Chicago racing season has been pushed further and further back toward the middle of winter.

"Our average field size is actually up from [the same number of days] last year," said Jim Miller, assistant general manager at Hawthorne. "Of course you want to improve it, and we're just trying to do what we can."

Miller, whose responsibilities this season range from hosting Hawthorne's paddock show to overseeing conditions on the backstretch and of the racing surface itself, said the horse population in the stable area has increased to about 1,350, up by about 150 from opening day. "We have a lot of horses working, and a lot more horses getting ready to roll," he said.

Miller said track superintendent Greg Cardenas worked during the two dark days this week to mitigate a strong inside bias present during the first week's racing. "It's been warmer, which has helped, and they've added more water and more surface down on the inside," he said. "Of course we don't want it to get deep down there, either."

Friday's first-race winner rallied four paths off the rail around the far turn, so the work might have done some good. Of course, after a pair of scratches, the Friday opener went with just four horses. Not everything is perfect yet.

Unreal Rocket in open company

Illinois-bred Tally Up won an open 3-year-old allowance race over males here Tuesday, and the Illinois-bred filly Unreal Rocket looks like the horse to beat in an open 3-year-old female allowance on Sunday. Co-featured, the race goes as the sixth, with another entry-level allowance - this one for older horses - carded as race 7.

Unreal Rocket won her maiden by five lengths last Oct. 7, finished third in the Showtime Deb Stakes, and wound up her season with a second to the talented filly Taylor Madison.

Trainer Roy Houghton got three February works into her, perhaps enough to have Unreal Rocket fit enough to win her 2005 debut.

Toribio gets first taste of Hawthorne

With a four-win Tuesday, jockey Chris Emigh took an early and unsurprising lead in the jockey standings. Emigh has settled in as the jock to beat when racing is conducted on this side of Chicagoland, and the jockey colony looks much the same in 2006 as it did during the two meets held last year at Hawthorne.

One new face is that of the 34-year-old journeyman Abdiel Toribio, whom many fans will recognize from Calder Race Course. But Toribio points out that he has ridden up and down the East Coast throughout his career and brought his tack to Chicago during the NJC meet at Sportsman's Park in 1996.

"I know some of the people here, so I made the decision to give it a try," Toribio said. "I'm happy here. We'll see what happens."

Toribio got 15 mounts during opening week, riding one winner.

Second in the standings with six wins was Larry Sterling, who now is being represented by Emigh's agent, Jay Fedor. Also switching agents this year was Eddie Perez, whose mounts now are being booked by Tom Morgan.

* Jockey Tim Thornton, who had one win opening week but has been riding regularly for the successful Frank Kirby barn, was hospitalized Tuesday because of dehydration. Thornton was released Friday morning, and hopes to resume riding Monday.