03/09/2007 12:00AM

Field sizes manage to hold steady

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STICKNEY, Ill. - It's no secret that the first meet of the year in Chicago - whether it was at the defunct Sportsman's Park or here at Hawthorne Race Course - tends to attract short fields, but the Friday-for-Sunday draw presented a special challenge for the Hawthorne racing office. Track racing secretary Gary Duch predicted Friday morning that putting together a whole card would be a challenge. It eventually got done, but only 58 horses were entered on the nine-race card, an average of only about 6.4 per race. Total purse money available - before statebred subsidies kick in - is just $120,000.

Still, Hawthorne isn't especially concerned about field size right now, at least no more so than usual, and its general manager, Jim Miller, predicted the Friday-for-Sunday struggle merely was a one-day blip. Field size for the meet "actually is a little ahead of last year," Miller said.

About 100 new horses came onto the Hawthorne backstretch this week, and about 1,420 animals - including ponies and early-season 2-year-olds - currently are housed here. While nowhere near capacity, that number is similar to the population at this point in the meet the last couple of years. And while handle at Hawthorne has declined compared with 2006, betting on the local product is not much different than it was two years ago.

"Last year, Fair Grounds wasn't in the mix, and we're just about even with '05," Miller said.

A Sunday feature? Sorry, no. The highest purse on the day, $26,000, comes in race 2, an Illinois-bred maiden sprint that drew just six entries.

Pirate Ship filling in

Tiptoe In, a minor local legend among diehard Chicago fans, was retired to a downstate Illinois farm last spring, but the Roger Brueggemann barn has found another horse who seems to win every winter at Hawthorne - Pirate Ship.

Pirate Ship, like the Brueggemann stable in general, tends to go slower during summers at Arlington, but come December at Hawthorne his form begins improving, and Pirate Ship can be counted on for a win or two at the end of the fall-winter meet and the beginning of winter-spring. Having scored two blowout claiming victories in November and December, Pirate Ship won at the highest level of a long career on Thursday, easily capturing a second-level allowance race. That's no minor accomplishment for a horse who once was a conditioned $5,000 claimer, and who has been through multiple surgeries.

Pirate Ship has a ways to go before he reaches the longevity of Tiptoe In, who won for the first time at Hawthorne in 1998, and for the last time in April. Tiptoe in, now a 12-year-old, was a $4,000 and $5,000 claimer the last couple years of his career, but was game as ever last season at age 11, and wound up with 20 victories from 93 starts. He now resides on the farm of Nancy and Harvey Vanier, who bred the horse.

"Nancy told me that whenever we were getting ready to retire him to let her know," Brueggeman said.

Retirement could be a ways off for Pirate Ship, given his annual form surge. Brueggemann first laid hands on him early in the fall of 2004, and a couple months later, Pirate Ship was winning three straight over his favorite racing surface: Hawthorne in the winter.

"He's had problems, and he probably should have been an even better horse than this," said Brueggemann. Pirate Ship has had leg surgery, and is chronically colic, once undergoing surgery on his intestines. Still, Pirate Ship remains tough as nails if allowed to make a clear lead in a Hawthorne route race.

"He loves to train, and he loves to race," said Brueggemann.

Things in general are humming along for Brueggemann, who scored his meet-leading seventh victory early on Friday's card. With his horses fitter than most from strong training regimens in late January and February, Brueggeman consistently wins this time of year with horses who would need lower-class races at any other time during the Chicago season.

"Anything can happen here in the spring," Brueggemann said.