10/02/2003 11:00PM

Key factor is handling the track

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CHICAGO - Run Hawthorne's Sunday feature on paper, and Victory at Sea is the winner. But the Hawthorne racing surface occupies a place far removed from the static world of past performances. The track here is quirky, sometimes deep and difficult to handle, and a horse's affinity for it often means as much as established form.

So think twice about accepting Victory at Sea's short price in Sunday's eighth race, a high-end, six-furlong allowance with a $100,000 claiming option that only Victory at Sea's connections exercise.

Victory at Sea, trained by Elliott Walden, has won 2 of her 3 most recent starts, and a last-out open allowance score at Belmont will mean a lot to simulcast players around the country. But a more important line may be the one showing that Victory at Sea never has run at Hawthorne.

If Victory at Sea transfers her best form to this surface, she stands a strong chance of beating top rivals Smoke Chaser, Win Won, and Sarah Jade. But ask for a fair price, or latch onto one of the other three.

Win Won is the antithesis of Victory at Sea, a horse many will view as too slow to win, but one who has excelled at Hawthorne. In eight starts here, Win Won has won four times and finished second three others, and only once failed to hit the board. A Sept. 23 start at Fairmount was poor, but it came at two turns, and a route horse Win Won is not. Best as a closing sprinter, she needs a quick pace in front of her.

Smoke Chaser should be part of the pace, and she too has run well over the track. Smoke Chaser finished second last out in an overnight sprint stakes at Arlington, beaten only by the rising star Savorthetime, who is headed into graded stakes racing.

Sarah Jade also is consistent, and exits a tough Arlington heat won by the good sprinter Summer Mis.

Surface gets attention

Hawthorne's racing surface got deeper and deeper this week, and after a morning filled with slow workouts Thursday (the fastest of 50 five-furlong works went in 1:02), the track maintenance crew scraped the top layer from the track, then rolled the surface and added water to further tighten it.

But race times Thursday still were slow, though the track played fairly. For instance, Boots Are Walking, a promising 2-year-old, won a maiden race by more than 10 lengths, but his six-furlong time was just 1:12.60.

Works were again slow on Friday, but mid-morning rain here changed the composition of the surface.

* The apprentice jockey Liz Morris, who began race riding late in the Arlington meet, scored her first career win Friday in Hawthorne's second race with Zee Me Zip ($33.40).