03/05/2008 1:00AM

Horse total up as meet opens

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STICKNEY, Ill. - Chicagoans can't stop talking about it: Actual winter finally returned to the Windy City after a long absence. Regular snowstorms and lingering cold snaps blew in throughout the second part of January and much of February - perfect timing for Hawthorne Race Course.

In a shift from last season, Hawthorne raced two weeks into January and pushed back its spring opener from Feb. 23 in 2007 to March 7 this year. The longer fall-winter meet was meant to entice local horsemen to stick around through the dark period, which seemed to work.

Hawthorne assistant general manager Jim Miller said about 150 more horses wintered on the backstretch this year, a fact born out by recent morning activity. Though locals lost six training days in January, and a couple more in February, veteran clocker Bobby Belpedio said close to 600 horses worked last Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, a number unheard of this time of year. Last season's opening-day card drew 74 horses, while 99 were entered for Friday.

It wouldn't be hard to boost field size early in the Chicago racing season, when short fields predominate. Many horsemen remain at winter bases in Florida, Arkansas, and Louisiana, but Miller said the later start date also means those horses will begin to filter in sooner. April, when the meet highlight Illinois Derby comes round, should be a stronger month, and turf racing is supposed to commence April 17.

But fundamental issues still dog racing here. Handle figures are stagnant or sinking, and fans mainly have deserted the Hawthorne plant for offtrack betting parlors, or in-home wagering options.

Illinois tracks and horsemen were teased again last year by the prospect of racetrack slots, but gaming expansion as usual stalled in the state legislature. Friday's nine-race card offers $151,000 in purses, higher than the lowest-tiered tracks, but well below slots-enriched venues like Philadelphia Park, which gave away $231,000 on a nondescript 10-race Tuesday card.

Hawthorne did card an actual opening-day feature, and race 4, a third-level sprint allowance also open to $40,000 claimers, drew a competitive field of eight. While the Hawthorne track surface has played crazily fast during recent morning workouts, and figures to remain frozen and speedy through the opener, there may be too much pace in this race. Powder River, well drawn on the rail, won two allowance races here last meet, and her off-the-lead style may work well in the Friday feature.