10/30/2002 12:00AM

Hands-on Hickey back on track

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STICKNEY, Ill. - For the first time in many months, Noel Hickey was able to keep a watchful eye on his shed row this week at Hawthorne. Wednesday, Hickey stood in front of his barn office, one part of his mind focused on an interview, but a watchful eye still on his animals.

In midsentence, Hickey paused to ask a groom to cut down a young gray horse's feed. "He's getting thick through the kidneys," Hickey said.

"Did that horse run off with you?" Hickey asked a few minutes later, as an exercise rider returned from the racetrack. "He's blowing too much."

The conversation quickly resumed, with Hickey still casting quick glances at the passing animals. "You can learn a lot just by watching your horses walk past you," he said.

This is the first time Hickey's been able to watch for quite some time. Since the spring Hickey has been serving a suspension for an offense that dates back to the early 1990's, and in the intervening months he has sat on his hands while a revolving door of stand-in trainers took over the racing end of his operation.

With such sharpness of mind, it is no wonder the 74-year-old Hickey was such a dominant player for so long in Chicago racing. His record of 62 wins at the Arlington meet just fell to trainer Wayne Catalano, whose owner Frank Calabrese uses methods much different than Hickey's. Calabrese claimed horses of all sorts and often won with horses he had owned for a matter of days. Hickey's is strictly a homebred operation. He stands stallions at Irish Acres Farm near Ocala, Fla., raises his stock from birth, and brings them to the races himself.

It's a long process, and Hickey has been through some lean years recently because of it. Slew the Slewor was a royally bred horse Hickey claimed and made about a quarter-million dollars with on the racetrack. With all his pedigree, Hickey figured Slew the Slewor was cut out to be a stallion, and he bred many of his mares to the horse for four seasons.

"I spent a lot of time and money to prove he was a sire," Hickey said. "And I did prove him. I proved he was no good."

Now, Hickey owns half of the established sire Tour d'Or, and he and Bucksplasher, sire of champion Buck's Boy, are Hickey's stallions of choice now. Tour d'Or sired Colorful Tour, whose strong comeback race last week at Arlington should set him up for a stakes win here Nov. 9.

Hickey has 29 horses at Hawthorne now and 30 2-year-olds overall, and, now that he's given away Slew the Slewor, his business may be ready to take off again.

Down the road for Allspice is Kentucky Oaks

How highly does trainer Gene Cilio regard Allspice at this early juncture of her career? Cilio said Wednesday that the Kentucky Oaks is the long-term goal for owner Jim Tafel's impressive 2-year-old filly.

Allspice turned heads with a 16-length maiden win over a mile last month at Arlington, and she backed up that performance with a 3 1/2-length win Sunday over much tougher opponents in the $100,000 Eliza. Allspice's debut - a failed one - came in a two-turn turf race, and she was cutting back to seven furlongs for the Eliza.

But Cilio is convinced that Allspice's future lies in races over a distance of ground. "I think the farther they go, the better she is," Cilio said.

Cilio said that Allspice, who is shipping with most of Cilio's stable to Fair Grounds, would be given a short break from serious training. "We'll give her a little time off," he said. "In December, we'll start looking at a race for her. We'll try to get two or three races in her at Fair Grounds."

A Sportsman's-Hawthorne merger

The hulking, empty grandstand at adjacent Sportsman's Park literally looms over this Hawthorne meet, a daily reminder of the demise of the old Sportsman's. Racing at that facility is over, but this summer Sportsman's and Hawthorne announced a loose merger. The merged entity, known as Hawthorne National LLC, doesn't begin operations until next year, and this fall-winter meet is strictly Hawthorne's.

When the merger does take effect, Sportsman's National Jockey Club meet will be held here at Hawthorne in the spring, with Hawthorne back in the fall. Between them, the NJC and Hawthorne have 116 days of racing next season, 13 more even than Arlington.

The two companies plan to share profits, expenses, and, supposedly, staffs, but specific plans for coordinating the merger still are in the developmental phase. Staff members at both tracks said they have yet to receive information on the how positions will be filled.

Mystery Giver points to Robert Carey

Last year's Robert Carey Memorial Handicap served as a jumping-off point for Good Journey, who finished third in the race before going onto a strong 2002 campaign that featured a third-place finish Saturday in the Breeders' Cup Mile.

Trainer Chris Block hopes this year's edition of the Carey will put Mystery Giver in the same sort of position for his 2003 campaign. Mystery Giver heads a prospective field of eight pointing for the Carey, a $150,000 Grade 3 at one mile on turf.

Where Good Journey is a prototypical miler, the Carey will be on the short side for Mystery Giver, whose ideal distance probably is 1 1/8 miles. But Mystery Giver has been maturing forcefully the last several months, and enters this race at the top of his game.

The best of his probable opponents are Aslaaf and Kimberlite Pipe, with Buckhari, Fighting Indians, La Reine's Terms, Robin Zee, and Smilin' Slew also expected to start.