02/27/2004 12:00AM

Hawthorne opener crowd up


Veteran trainer Larry Uelmen could not have scripted a better start to the 2004 racing season in Chicago.

"I'm trying to build a stable here after 27 years in Michigan," Uelmen said after saddling Of Legal Age to win the opening race of the National Jockey Club-at-Hawthorne meet, a $32,000 allowance sprint that served as the richest of 10 Friday races. "This really helps."

Uelmen was not the only person to enjoy the return of live action to the Chicago circuit. Following the customary winter break of nearly eight weeks, Hawthorne, in Stickney, Ill., reopened amid unseasonably warm weather, which brought hundreds of fans out on the apron. Attendance was 3,729, up about 8 percent from the comparable Friday last year, and all-sources and ontrack handle through seven races was on pace to show an even bigger increase, according to track officials.

One other allowance was run on the opening-day card, which, like every NJC program until April 3, lacks a stakes. The Grade 3 Illinois Derby, the meet highlight, will be run April 3.