02/22/2006 12:00AM

Increased horsepower greets new meet


STICKNEY, Ill. - Its very existence in jeopardy last fall, the National Jockey Club starts its 2006 race meet Friday at Hawthorne Race Course with at least a sliver of hope.

The NJC's own facility, the old Sportsman's Park, is razed, the property owned now by the village of Cicero. Three years ago a loosely formed business partnership with Hawthorne - called Hawthorne National LLC - at least gave the NJC a home, but that relationship frayed badly last year, and in September, at the 2006 Illinois Racing Board dates awards meeting, the NJC's financial integrity also was called into question.

But a reconstitution of the Hawthorne-NJC power structure this winter appears to have left the NJC on firmer ground. Ousted was Hawthorne general manager Thomas Carey III, with his cousin Tim Carey now the de facto head of all operations housed at Hawthorne. Ed Duffy, a longtime NJC operative, is the general manager at this meet, but Tim Carey and assistant general manager Jim Miller will oversee the day-to-day operations.

"Quite frankly, we've all made the commitment together that we're going to make this thing work," said Tim Carey. "We've had a difficult time the first three years of this thing, but people are putting personal agendas aside and being good partners."

Like many local horse people, Carey wants help from the Illinois legislature, be it through ontrack slots or a revenue stream flowing from the long-delayed issuance of 10th Illinois riverboat casino license. Those fixes are mere fantasy for now, but the reality on the ground doesn't look so bad. The NJC meet always starts slowly, with many horsemen still in winter quarters, but the shuttering of Fair Grounds this year has landed many horses in Chicago earlier than usual.

"By the middle of next week we should have 1,400 horses, and by mid-March, I hope to have 1,600," said racing secretary Gary Duch. "Last year, we topped out at 1,400, and this year I got some guys from Fairmount Park who are adamant about running up here more."

A mild winter also has helped local horsemen ready their stock for the meet's opening, and a total of 153 horses worked here Wednesday on a mild, sunny morning.

"I know I'm ready to go," said trainer Brian Williamson, who has a host of talented Illinois-breds in his Hawthorne barn. "My horses are jumping out of their skin."

Friday's opening-day card got an excellent response, with 99 horses entered for nine races. The nominal feature is the sixth, an Illinois-bred entry-level sprint allowance.

AT A GLANCE: Hawthorne

RACING SCHEDULE: 49 days, Feb. 24-May 2; racing Friday-Tuesday, dark Wednesday and Thursday, dark April 16.

POST TIME: 1:10 p.m.

ADMISSIONS: $2 grandstand, $4 clubhouse

PARKING: Free general, $2 clubhouse, $3 preferred clubhouse, $3 preferred grandstand, $4.50 clubhouse valet

HIGHLIGHTS: llinois Derby - April 8; Sixty Sails Handicap - April 22; National Jockey Club Handicap - April 22; Illinois-bred Day (6 stakes) - April 29

LOCATION: 3501 S. Laramie, Stickney/Cicero, IL, 60804

PHONE: (708) 780-3700

INTERNET: hawthorneracecourse.com

2006 spring stakes schedule

Sat., April 8Illinois Derby (G2)3YO1 1/8 miles $500,000
Sat., April 8Meafara Breeders' Cup3YO F6 furlongs100,000
Sat., April 8Lost Code Breeders' Cup3YO6 furlongs100,000
Sat., April 22Sixty Sails Handicap (G3)3YO & UP F & M1 1/8 miles250,000
Sat., April 22National Jockey Club H. (G3)3YO & UP1 1/8 miles250,000
Sat., April 29Lady Hallie Stakes3YO F*6 furlongs100,000
Sat., April 29Land of Lincoln Stakes3YO C & G*6 furlongs100,000
Sat., April 29Governor's Lady Handicap4YO & UP F & M*6 furlongs100,000
Sat., April 29ChicagoLand Handicap4YO & UP*6 furlongs100,000
Sat., April 29Peach Of It Handicap3YO & UP F & M*1 1/16 miles100,000
Sat., April 29Milwaukee Avenue Handicap3YO & UP*1 1/16 miles100,000