03/02/2007 1:00AM

Given the circumstances, Emigh content in Chicago

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Eddie Razo is neck and neck for leading rider at the ongoing Oaklawn Park meet, and Larry Sterling is winning races there, too. Ramsey Zimmerman is having a solid Fair Grounds meet, Jesse Campbell an even better one. All these are Chicago riders, but the leading Chicago rider - meet in and meet out, these days - is Chris Emigh. Nevertheless, Emigh could be found this week plying his trade for less purse money, less prestige, and under much, much more difficult weather conditions, at Hawthorne Race Course.

"Yeah, I would've liked to have gone somewhere," said Emigh.

But physical issues intervened. Days after winning Hawthorne's fall-winter riding title in a runaway, Emigh had an MRI performed on a troublesome shoulder. Damage was found to cartilage in the joint, and Emigh had the problem surgically repaired. At less than 100 percent, it was no time to try something out of town, and Emigh will gradually be getting back to full strength in the coming weeks.

"The doctor said if I didn't get it fixed, it could get to where it could really hurt me," Emigh said. "I went four weeks without moving it, and this is my rehab. It feels pretty good, but I don't quite have all my mobility in it."

Some might suppose the shoulder has something to do with a sub-standard start for Emigh, who had 2 wins from 21 mounts after Thursday's races. But while that might be true, Emigh has not been handed a steady diet of favorites; any jockey is only as good as the mounts he gets. And while Emigh has ridden more than any other Chicago rider in recent meets, he could take things at least slightly lighter while the shoulder comes around.

"I'm trying not to ride that many right now," he said.

Houghton adapts to cold weather

Meanwhile, Terry Houghton, one of the group of jockeys banned from riding at Tampa Bay Downs, where he had planned to winter, has quickly adapted to winter racing in Chicago. Despite miserable conditions during the opening days of the Hawthorne meet, Houghton booted home his meet-leading fifth winner in Friday's first race. Less than an hour later, the remainder of the card was scrapped because of high wind, the likes of which Houghton said he had never felt.

"The wind was really bad," said Houghton, who won the Friday opener with late-running Ragweed. "The gallop-out was where the wind really hit us. I thought it was going to blow me off my horse when we got on the turn. I've never felt a gust like that before."

Welcome to Chicago.

Allowance quite a puzzle

Sunday's featured fifth race is a six-furlong optional claiming event for 3-year-old fillies. The race, which also carries first-level allowance conditions, has a field of six that's difficult to separate on form.

A handicapper will find horses who most recently raced not just at Hawthorne, but at Charles Town, Great Lakes Downs, and Tampa Bay. Two of the fillies exit wins; none of them has especially distinguished herself.

Negra Noche, who starts under the race's $50,000 claiming option, won her 2006 finale at Hawthorne by almost 13 lengths, but did so in a mushy $25,000 maiden-claimer. Two others also scored Hawthorne wins last year, Brilliant Beauty in a $15,000 maiden-claimer, Mongoose Gold in an Illinois-bred maiden-special-weight.