03/11/2008 11:00PM

Feature's field has zero early foot

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STICKNEY, Ill. - Playing races close to the standard handicapping book did not always get results during opening week of the Hawthorne meet. Monday's nine-race card alone produced winners who paid $24.80, $53.60, $60.80, and $107. The early pick three was so improbable that not a single bettor hit it.

Part of this is the season. Hawthorne has been dark since early January, and many of the horses here are running for the first time after a winter break. Sheer fitness can win a race for a horse who - on paper - may look outclassed.

But that's actually not the most challenging part of the equation in the featured sixth race here on Friday, a second-level allowance carded for one mile and 70 yards. No, what complicates analysis of this race is its total lack of early pace.

Six horses were entered - surprisingly, half of them have a recent start - and not one among the group has ever led at the first call of any race showing on his past-performance lines. Mr. Soul was close to the pace when he won a one-turn mile on Arlington Polytrack last summer, but that is hardly his regular style of running.

"He doesn't have much speed, either," said trainer Hugh Robertson. "I don't know how he showed speed that one day."

Mr. Soul showed promise at age 3, winning his maiden by more than two lengths about a year ago at Oaklawn. He failed to progress much off that victory in subsequent 2007 starts, and after a decent run in his Jan. 31 Oaklawn comeback race after a long layoff, Mr. Soul finished a flat fourth of six there on Feb. 17.

"I thought he was going to run a lot better last time out," Robertson said. "I'm hoping a change of scenery will do him some good."

A lot of horses trained by Robertson and his son Mac are getting a change of scenery. Robertson has some 50 horses presently stabled at Hawthorne, and the 30 or more training for one Robertson or another at Oaklawn will filter back north in coming weeks.

Friday's race may in the end come down to trip and fondness for the local surface, and Contrary definitely likes it at Hawthorne, with 2 wins and 2 seconds in 5 local starts. One of two horses entered by trainer Charlie Bettis - the decent Silver Legacy is the other - Contrary won an entry-level allowance race by almost two lengths on Dec. 7, and capped off his fall-winter Hawthorne meet with a close second in a third-level allowance race three weeks later. Contrary has solid works for his return, an inside draw, and as good a chance as anyone in a tough-to-figure race.

Field sizes hold steady

When Hawthorne's assistant general manager, Jim Miller, touted the number of entries on Friday's opening-day card, he seemed to be asking for trouble. After all, starters per race is a historically soft category this time of year in Chicago.

But after the four-day opening week was through, Miller's confidence looked justified. After 88 horses started Friday, 84 ran on Saturday, and while Sunday's starters numbered 73, the total bounced back to 81 again on Monday. Each day had a nine-race card.

While entries for Friday's card fell to 69, Hawthorne has taken some proactive steps to do what it can to boost field size at the meet. Running longer into January this year, and starting up again in March rather than late February, has so far seemed like a good idea. And Hawthorne has so far carded more races at five and 5 1/2 furlongs, distances that should appeal to a horse population generally at less peak fitness right now.

Weather, times warming up

Finally, spring seems to be on the horizon in Chicago, with the temperature up into the low 50s this week. The change in the weather should fully thaw the long-frozen Hawthorne track, and could easily change the way the surface plays this week.

While times weren't especially quick on opening day, things sped up considerably in the three days thereafter. Saturday, three six-furlong races were won with times faster than 1:11, and one with a sub-1:10 clocking. Sunday, four six-furlong races went faster than 1:11, and three were faster than 1:10. Monday, the totals were four sub-1:11s, and one sub-1:10. Suffice it to say that several of those winning times were produced by horses of lesser quality.