03/04/2006 1:00AM

Inside speed bias gone


STICKNEY, Ill. - Even a casual fan would have noticed by the end of the National Jockey Club meet's first week that the track surface at Hawthorne had a golden rail. The inside path pushed speed horses to victory in most races, but when the early battle for the best spot on the racetrack got too hectic, the occasional closer would sneak up the rail to victory.

Those people overseeing day-to-day operations at the meet noticed the trend, too, and on the two dark days before week 2 of the NJC commenced Friday, they decided to do something about it. Assistant general manager Jim Miller said that extra material had been added to the inside part of the track, and that the maintenance crew had watered the surface more heavily than in previous weeks.

And clearly, the changes had a discernible effect. Gone on Friday's card was the inside-speed palace that existed last Monday and Tuesday. A few horses won from the front end, but pace-pressers in outside paths, and even a couple late-running closers, also had success.

Based on Friday's results, handicapping Hawthorne races just became much more complicated: Now one has to give every horse in a given race a look, regardless of running style. Had Monday's featured seventh race, a second-level Illinois-bred sprint allowance, been contested a week earlier, a horse like Weekend Rates - all speed - would have deserved extra attention. But on a fair-playing track, Weekend Rates's tendency to lose ground in deep stretch might be her most important characteristic, rather than her ability to make the lead, even from an outside draw.

Weekend Rates is in fact one of three pace elements in the featured seventh, with Golden Profile (trained by one Turfway Park-based George Bush - George S. Bush, that is) and the comebacking Zizook also likely to show speed. The pace should be fast enough to set the table for Lil'bito'sunshine. Besides having the distinction of a name with two apostrophes, Lil'bito'sunshine also possesses a decent late kick when she's at her best, and while Lil'bito'sunshine hasn't shown her best since last spring, she has been breezing with aplomb in recent weeks for the barn of Dee Poulos. Lil'bito'sunshine's two career wins came at this NJC meet last season, and she may well be a horse for the season - especially now that every horse in Hawthorne's races appear to have an equal chance.