10/14/2005 12:00AM

A faster, better surface


STICKNEY, Ill. - Hawthorne's main track has undergone a change for the better in the last few racing days, going from a dry, tiring surface that was difficult for many horses to handle, to something much more recognizable. By Friday afternoon, in fact, the Hawthorne dirt was downright speedy, with horses in sprint races consistently clocking half-mile fractions in less than 45 seconds.

If the track might have tilted too far in the other direction, it at least is back somewhere in the right universe. For the better part of two weeks, times were noticeably slow, with many horses appearing to labor over the surface. Many six-furlong races were timed between 1:14 and 1:15, and a horse running a 1:12 was flying.

Slower times aren't in themselves bad, but when so many horses obviously struggled to gain traction, the surface needed a nudge in a different direction.

"It wasn't holding together the way I wanted it to," said Greg Cardenas, who heads Hawthorne's track maintenance crew.

Cardenas faces a difficult task. Hawthorne hosts a harness meet during the summer, and for that season an entirely different sort of track surface, harder and with much less sand, is required. When the harness horses finish up in late August, Cardenas must lay down the Thoroughbred track, which quickly is used for morning training, and in a month has to be ready for five-day racing weeks. At many Thoroughbred tracks the same surface is used year after year.

"When you get a track that's been settling for 10 years, it's a different story," Cardenas said.

Cardenas said he began rolling and watering the track daily to tighten things up. Finally, beginning in the second half of this past Monday's card and continuing when racing resumed Wednesday, the work began to have an effect.

But now, with $10,000 nonwinners-of-two claimers setting a half-mile fraction of 44.97 seconds in Friday's six-furlong fourth race, the challenge will be to keep the track from going over the top in a new direction.

Taylor's Day not acting his age

No swayback, no gray hair, no obvious sign of wear and tear. Back in the winner's circle after Friday's first race here - back there for the 28th time in 111 starts - was Taylor's Day, who has proven to be one of the more durable horses in the Midwest. After holding his own during the summer in $5,000 starter allowance races at Ellis Park, Hoosier Park, and trainer John Cox's Fairmount Park base, Taylor's Day won Friday for an $8,000 tag, and won easily, setting a fast pace and drawing off for a 6 1/2-length score.

Taylor's Day turns 12 in less than three months. But Cox, who once worked as an aircraft company executive and took up training when he retired eight years ago, claimed him just last February - from Cole Norman, of all people.

"I had watched him for year after year," said Cox, an Arkansas native who, like Norman, winters at Oaklawn Park. "There really wasn't anything I was that concerned with about him."

Cox said Taylor's Day doesn't show his age. "He doesn't have legs like an 11-year-old," he said. Indeed, Taylor's Day has started 15 times this season alone, with 4 wins, 4 seconds, and 3 thirds. "I love this horse," said Cox.

BC prospect's stablemate in feature

Sunday's feature is the eighth race, an entry-level allowance at 6 1/2 furlongs for fillies and mares. But the ninth, another entry-level allowance, this one for Illinois-breds going long on turf, is just as interesting.

Tally Ho Dixie, one of the contenders in the eighth, will have had her brush with fame if her stablemate, Original Spin, should happen to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies two weekends from now. Tally Ho Dixie was one of two horses trainer Tony Mitchell sent out to work with Original Spin in the filly's last major Breeders' Cup work. While Original Spin got what she needed out of the work, the other two also went fast. Tally Ho Dixie was timed in 1:00 for five furlongs and fits well in the eighth if the last half-furlong doesn't get her.

The horse for the ninth may be Class Ack, who was rained out of an intended start earlier this meet and looked quite good winning his maiden Aug. 24 at Arlington.