03/04/2005 1:00AM

Filling races tougher than expected

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STICKNEY, Ill. - The racing office, one of those corridors of daily racetrack life generally tucked away from public view, can be a pleasant, jovial place. But when there are a limited number of horses available to race, and a certain number of races that have to be filled, it can turn into a house of stress.

The atmosphere is not all peaches and cream in the Hawthorne Race Course racing office right now. After a good opening day last Friday, races here have been slow to fill. During the meet's first week, fields averaged just 7.6 starters; that's in a completely different class than the crowded fields seen here during the fall-winter meet that ended Jan. 2.

Sunday's featured fifth race, a second-level sprint allowance, was caught in the numbers game. It attracted only six entries, and racing officials here did good work just getting it to fill.

"Before the meet, I looked at the work tab and the way the weather was, and I really thought we would be okay," said racing secretary Gary Duch. "I am surprised at how tough it's been."

This meet got a somewhat early start this year, and there have been many more early-season races than in 2004. Last year, there was a five-day break after the first two cards, and racing was conducted just four days a week. This time, five-day weeks were employed from the very beginning.

Said Duch: "I know things will get better. There are people that have shipped in that aren't quite ready yet."

Count trainer Bret Calhoun among that number. Calhoun's Hawthorne string sits at about half-capacity right now, with horses trickling in from his bases at Fair Grounds and Sam Houston. But Calhoun managed to come up with two entries for the Sunday feature.

"There's strength in numbers," he said.

Both Calhoun horses, which race uncoupled, have won at Hawthorne before. Boots Are Walking, who was a close third last out in a Sam Houston race at this class level, won his maiden here two falls ago, while Ingles scored in a $25,000 claimer here last fall before finishing his season Nov. 20 with a second at this class level.

Ingles has been training great, Calhoun said, but the horse might need a start. "He missed some time with a quarter crack," Calhoun said.

Ingles is a speed horse, Boots Are Walking a closing sprinter, and Calhoun hopes the long Hawthorne stretch will benefit his late-runner.

"He's ready and he runs his race every time," Calhoun said.

Mr Big Time and Angelic Morgan L. - proven Hawthorne horses - Chrome Soldier, and Five Card Monty complete the field.