02/23/2005 1:00AM

Feels like home for NJC meeting

Four-Footed Fotos
Horses have been training during the seven-week winter dark period at Hawthorne, which opens its 54-day National Jockey Club meeting Friday with higher purses and better racing.

STICKNEY, Ill. - It is not the bugler's call, but the grinding of 120-foot-tall cranes dismantling a towering metal grandstand that greets opening day of the National Jockey Club at Sportsman's Park. The horses - they're next door at Hawthorne Race Course, where the National Jockey Club meet moved in 2003, and where it begins a 54-day run on Friday.

The old Sportsman's Park became a dual-purpose car and horse racing facility in 1999 with the opening of the 67,000-seat Chicago Motor Speedway. But the speedway - with a huge grandstand, 42 skyboxes, and room for 35,000 infield fans - failed financially, and its history was brief. Horse racing moved next door to Hawthorne when the NJC and Hawthorne formed a loosely merged business, Hawthorne National LLC, and later, the Sportsman's property was sold to the village of Cicero, which wants to develop the property with hotels and a convention center.

Now the cranes are out, tearing away huge chunks of the place.

"Do I like looking over and seeing it? No, I don't," said Charlie Bidwill III, who is on the board of managers for Hawthorne National. Bidwill's family owned Sportsman's starting in 1932, and Bidwill was one of the operators of the Chicago Motor Speedway. "Sometimes things just don't work out. When they don't, you have to keep your chin up and keep moving forward."

The NJC meet has found a home at Hawthorne. Daily purses will be up this meet, and fans will see more allowance races and overnight stakes through the course of the season, and perhaps fewer bottom-level maiden claimers. Friday's nine-race card, which drew 91 entries, will pay out $154,000 in purses.

The Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby, to be run April 9 this year, has become a fixture on the Triple Crown trail, and there are two other graded stakes later that month. If all goes well, the local grass course will see action in mid-April.

"I think things are a little more firm," Bidwill said of the NJC. "There was speculation we wouldn't make it. In general, we feel good about where we're going."

Horsemen who have trained here during the seven-week winter dark period should be ready to roll. While the opening-day card filled well, the first few weeks of this meet are the light ones, with many Chicago horses still based at Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, and to a lesser extent south Florida. At last count, there were 1,222 horses on the backstretch, a number that will steadily increase.

Friday's featured seventh race has the day's shortest field, but eight is decent for a third-level sprint allowance with a $35,000 claiming option.

The race is filled with Hawthorne specialists; combined, the horses have gone 13-for-48 over this racetrack, which can be speedy and inside-favoring in the winter. The Hawthorne-lovingest of them all might be Getcozywithkaylee, who came here last fall with just two career wins and finished up her season with five. Getcozywithkaylee won three straight to end 2004, and turned in a sharp workout here Feb. 17 for trainer Emma Schwan.

At a glance: NJC at Hawthorne

RACING SCHEDULE: 54 days, racing Fridays through Tuesdays, dark Wednesdays, Thursdays, and March 27.

POST TIME: 1 p.m. Central

ADMISSIONS: Grandstand, $2; clubhouse, $4

PARKING: General, free; clubhouse, $2; preferred clubhouse, $3; preferred grandstand, $3; clubhouse valet, $4.50

ADDRESS: 3501 S. Laramie, Stickney/Cicero, Ill., 60804

PHONE: (708) 780-3700

INTERNET: hawthorneracecourse.com


April 9

llinois Derby (G3)3YO1 1/8 miles$500,000

Lost Code BC3YO6 furlongs125,000

Meafara BC3YO F6 furlongs125,000

April 23

NJC H. (G3)3YO & Up1 1/8 miles250,000

Sixty Sails H. (G3)F&M, 3YO & Up1 1/8 miles250,000

April 30

Chicagoland4YO & Up*6 furlongs100,000

Governor's Lady H.F&M, 4YO & Up*6 furlongs100,000

Lady Hallie3YO F*6 furlongs100,000

Land of Lincoln3YO c/g*6 furlongs100,000

Milwaukee Ave. H.3YO & Up*1 1/16 miles100,000

Peach of It H.F&M, 3YO & Up*1 1/16 miles100,000

* Illinois-bred