03/05/2005 12:00AM

Kitty's Mission should be ready

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CHICAGO - It is like a no-man's-land for handicappers, this early phase of the National Jockey Club at Hawthorne meet. The racing surface ping-pongs between sticky and speedy. There are stray horses in from Mountaineer Park, Tampa Bay Downs, Oaklawn, Fair Grounds, and Turfway.

And then there are the layoffs.

Most of the horses racing early in this meet wintered in Chicago. Hawthorne's fall-winter season ended Jan. 2, but the racetrack remained open for training during the eight or so dark weeks. Many of the horses entered Tuesday were here, waiting and training away. The pressing question: Which ones are ready?

Of the 64 horses entered on Tuesday's nine-race card, 39 race after a layoff of 30 days or longer. Take out the second race, in which all eight starters have recent races, and the percentage of layoff horses is even greater.

And so it goes in the featured seventh race Tuesday, a third-level allowance with a $35,000 claiming option for fillies and mares at one mile and 70 yards. The race drew six horses, and the only two that show a recent race, U K Trick and Direct, both finished eighth in their last start.

Trainer Mike Reavis won eight races from 16 starters during this meet's opening week, mostly because his outfit gets horses ready to win in their first races back from layoffs. Reavis sends out Kitty's Mission in the Tuesday feature, and though she hasn't run since Dec. 12, Kitty's Mission might be the horse to beat.

Kitty's Mission runs for the claiming price Tuesday, though she remains eligible for a third-level allowance. She concluded her 2004 season with a narrow defeat in an open $25,000 claimer here and was flattered when the horse who beat her by a neck, Dutchie, returned to win at a higher class level.

Two other layoff horses, Expendable and Sara's Tune, also merit respect. Expendable concluded her 2004 campaign with a seventh in a race run under conditions nearly identical to these, but she is a better horse than she showed that start and has been breezing swiftly for trainer Andy Hansen.

Expendable should be forwardly placed under jockey Eddie Razo, while Sara's Tune will try to rally from behind. A three-time winner in 2004, Sara's Tune is a solid racehorse, but one who needs pace help to set up her late run.