04/18/2006 11:00PM

Just 6 for NJC - but it could have been 5

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Evening Attire wins last year's Grade 3 Stuyvesant at Aqueduct under Jose Santos, who will ride him Saturday.

STICKNEY, Ill. - When you are thinking your graded stakes race might get just five horses, six begins to seem okay. And six is how many were entered Tuesday for Saturday's National Jockey Club Handicap here at Hawthorne. It's not a huge field, but local racing officials may be satisfied with it, given the prospect of something smaller.

The Grade 3, $250,000 shares top billing Saturday with the Grade 3, $250,000 Sixty Sails Handicap, both races at 1 1/8 miles on dirt. The Sixty Sails, which drew eight horses, is restricted to females.

Trainer Todd Pletcher won both of these races last season, and he will have a chance to do so again with a pair of horses in from his New York string. Colita may be favored in the NJC, while Fleet Indian looks like the chalk in the Sixty Sails. Jose Santos will be in to ride both horses.

Also entered in the NJC are the locals Courthouse, a longshot, and contenders Nkosi Reigns and Three Hour Nap. Summer Book ships in for Kentucky-based Niall O'Callaghan, and then there is another New Yorker by the name of Evening Attire. Racing officials here have tried without success to entice Evening Attire to come to the Hawthorne Gold Cup the last few autumns, but trainer Pat Kelly, seeing that the NJC lacked star power this year, has decided to ship for Saturday's race.

"We're working on the arrangements right now," Kelly said early Wednesday afternoon. "We're looking for a van to get him out there."

Evening Attire is getting to be an old man. Now 8, he has made 49 starts in his career, almost all of them close to home. Only eight times has Evening Attire left New York to race, and only four times has he gone away from the East Coast. One of those occasions came in 2002, when Evening Attire was fourth in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Arlington, his only trip to Chicago. And while Evening Attire is no longer a Grade 1 kind of horse, he finished a close fifth, a couple of lengths behind third-place Colita, in the Grade 3 Excelsior Breeders' Cup Handicap on April 1.

"We're heading to Belmont Park, and it gets to be a little tricky finding two-turn races," Kelly said. "We've never had much luck taking him out on the road, but maybe there's a first time."

Fleet Indian, the Sixty Sails favorite, exits a victory in the Next Move Handicap at Aqueduct, and has won three in a row. Platinum Ballet, fourth last out in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom, and the multiple stakes winner Culinary look like her main competition.

Torres stars in his own comeback

There are three riders with mounts in both graded stakes here Saturday. Jose Santos is here to ride the Pletcher horses, and Chris Emigh leads the local standings. But the third is Francisco Torres, who hasn't been seen in these parts since 2000, when he rode Bet on Sunshine in the Arlington Sprint.

Torres, in fact, grew up in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, and rode regularly here until moving to Kentucky in the mid-1990's. His career has sputtered from substance-abuse problems, and this past winter in Louisiana he was reinstated after being suspended for falsifying his application for a license. But Torres has now been licensed in three different states, and at age 36, hopes his problems are behind him.

"All I can do is show up and say, 'Here I am,' " Torres said. "I could sit here and make all kinds of excuses for what I've done - I'm okay with people judging me. Drug abuse, substance abuse, alcohol abuse, that's been there, but everything I've gone through has made me a better person today. I can actually say I can communicate with people who have had problems in life. I want to prove to people that it's okay - that people do make mistakes."

Torres had only recently made his comeback when he was injured in a spill at Oaklawn in January. But during his recovery from an injured vertebra in his neck, he won a role playing the jockey Braulio Baeza in a movie about the legendary filly Ruffian. Torres recently shot his scenes for the film at Louisiana Downs. "It was a blast," he said.

Wednesday, his first morning at Hawthorne, Torres was back to a more regular routine - working horses. He has mounts lined up for Friday, and has a new agent in Bobby Kelly. Kelly himself has rebounded after suffering a heart attack here last fall that nearly killed him. Two comeback kids working together.

Year's first turf races on Friday

Two teams of laborers were working throughout Wednesday afternoon installing the inner turf rail on the Hawthorne grass course, which will be put to use for the first time this year on Friday. It's a fairly early start to the local turf season, but it also was a fairly mild winter. Recent rain and warm temperature actually have the turf looking fairly lush for this time of year.

Race 5 on Friday is for $18,000 turf claimers, a staple in the condition book when it is warm enough for grass racing. Twenty-three percent turf trainer Chris Block has likely favorite Sara's Shadow for this spot, and Sara's Shadow has won half her eight starts on the Hawthorne lawn.

Friday's ninth, for Illinois-bred maidens, is carded for 1 1/16 miles on turf, and looks like an excellent betting race. Block has another logical contender for this race, too, the second-time starter Stumbling Block, but he will have to overcome post 12 and several potentially capable rivals. Turf-bred Alby has speed and the rail, while just outside him in the starting gate is K D Mac, who has faced open maidens and statebred stakes horses on dirt since a decent try over this turf course in his career debut last fall. Act Like a Lion also has an outside draw, but on pedigree seems likely to move forward from a fading seventh-place finish on dirt here March 19 in his first-ever start.