04/27/2005 11:00PM

A fresh Wiggins returns in Milwaukee Avenue


CHICAGO - Milwaukee Avenue starts just beyond the North Loop in downtown Chicago and runs northwest until it hits countryside - which makes the Milwaukee Avenue Handicap a perfect metaphor for the Illinois Day program at Hawthorne on Saturday.

No racetrack in the country could claim more urban grit than Hawthorne, but its Saturday card ripples out to even the rural fringes of the state, where most of the 55 horses entered in Saturday's stakes were bred and raised.

Six stakes races for Illinois-breds are featured in the program, beginning with with the Chicagoland Handicap, race 3, and ending with the Milwaukee Avenue Handicap, which drew a surprisingly large field of 11.

"I didn't think they'd get that many," said trainer Tony Granitz.

Not all of the 11 have as good a chance as Granitz's charge, Wiggins, one of the best Illinois-bred route horses the last two seasons. Wiggins is by the leading Illinois sire Cartwright, who stands at the farm of Jake Bryant, but he was bred and co-owned at first by Kenny Spraggins, a former Chicago factory worker. Spraggins and his partner sold Wiggins in September of his 2-year-old season. They got a good price, but lost a good horse.

, 5, earned more than $263,000 in 2003 and almost $182,000 last year, winning half of his 16 starts during that span. Like last season, when he finished second as the odds-on favorite in this race, Wiggins enters the Milwaukee Avenue fresh off his winter break. Granitz said he would have run Wiggins in a prep race had he found one, but he was forced to train Wiggins into Saturday's race.

"We put a few more works in him this year," Granitz said. "I feel very confident. All we need to do is work out the right trip."

Wiggins must also beat Home of Stars, who took the measure of Wiggins and everyone else here last November, when he won the High Alexander Handicap by 1 3/4 lengths. Home of Stars wintered at Fair Grounds and got in a good race there March 12, when he finished second in an optional claimer, and might be more fit than Wiggins. They have faced each other twice, with Wiggins easily beating Home of Stars in the 2003 Springfield Stakes at Arlington.

Illinois Day wouldn't be complete without Milwaukee Avenue longshot Magic Doe. With a race record dating back to 1997, the 10-year-old Magic Doe will have competed in an Illinois Day stakes in seven of the last eight years if he makes the gate Saturday. And after 87 lifetime starts, there's no reason to think the old man will miss the dance.