05/18/2002 12:00AM

Hail the Chief, king of Chicago


STICKNEY, Ill. - A month after he romped in the National Jockey Club Handicap at Sportsman's Park, Hail the Chief moved about 100 yards south and won the $500,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup by 3 1/4 lengths Saturday. He surely has cemented his position as the king of Chicago's West Side; now Hail the Chief is out to conquer the rest of the country.

Hail the Chief validated his outstanding effort in the NJC Handicap, at the same time proving he can rate comfortably behind the lead and get the 1 1/4-mile distance. Hail the Chief led all the way in the nine-furlong NJC Cap, but had lost both of his tries at 10 furlongs.

He also continues his meteoric rise from middling handicap horse in England, where he raced until late this year, to a top dirt handicapper in the United States. Hail the Chief was exported from England last fall and placed in the barn of trainer Niall O'Callaghan, who is building an amazing record with European imports. Last weekend, another import, Wiseman's Ferry, won the Lone Star Derby.

Hail the Chief lost his first two starts this winter before beginning a steady progression that culminated in his NJC Handicap win.

"He lost a little weight coming out of [the NJC]," O'Callaghan said, "but he gained it back. I didn't do much with him between starts, but that was by design."

With the speedy Duckhorn in the Grade 2 Gold Cup, Hail the Chief could not make a clear lead this time, and jockey Jorge Chavez did not even try. Chavez let Duckhorn run out to a clear lead and set moderately quick early fractions, running a quarter-mile in 23.81 seconds and a half-mile in 47.72. Duckhorn was going easily around the first turn, but began to look uncomfortable midway down the backstretch and quickly was collared by Hail the Chief.

"I had a lot of horse," said Duckhorn's rider, Randy Meier, "then I didn't have anything."

Hail the Chief drew off to a clear lead at the top of the stretch and never was threatened, though Dollar Bill made a steady run to finish second, more than six lengths ahead of Parade Leader, who ran evenly in the stretch. Duckhorn was fourth and Sir Bear was eased under the wire. Hail the Chief paid $6.20 to win as a narrow favorite and was timed in 2:02.80 on a fast track.

The natural next step for Hail the Chief is the Grade 1 Stephen Foster next month at Churchill Downs, a race O'Callaghan won last year with Guided Tour.