02/25/2004 12:00AM

Longshot wins: It's warm out

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STICKNEY, Ill. - Almost all the snow is gone, and the lake in the Hawthorne Race Course infield has even thawed. Late February in Chicago isn't supposed to be so temperate, although much harsher conditions have never really stopped the hardy horsemen of Illinois from emerging from their winter hibernations.

Indeed, a 10-race Friday card that launches the Illinois racing season is expected to be run in relatively balmy conditions: Sunny skies and a high temperature of 53 are in the forecast. Nobody knows whether this is a good omen for 2004, but one thing is for sure - most everyone at Hawthorne is ready to resume live racing after an eight-week break.

"I think we're all looking forward to getting back to it," said veteran jockey Randy Meier, who won the Hawthorne riding crown last fall and can be expected to contend for another title at what is officially known as the National Jockey Club-at-Hawthorne meet.

This is the second year of a complex arrangement that allows the National Jockey Club to run its traditional spring meet at Hawthorne. NJC has disbanded all operations at Sportsman's Park, just north of Hawthorne, because of a financially calamitous decision several years ago to convert Sportsman's into a facility for both horse racing and auto racing. NJC now has offices at Hawthorne.

In typical fashion, the 2004 NJC meet will begin slowly in an attempt to build momentum for the meet's end, when several graded stakes, highlighted by the Grade 2 Illinois Derby, will be run. The $500,000 Illinois Derby, which has enjoyed a resurgence in the last two years when won by War Emblem (2002) and Ten Most Wanted (2003), is set for April 3, four weeks before the Kentucky Derby.

The Friday opener, like every racing program prior to the Illinois Derby, lacks a stakes race. The richest events are a pair of sprints: a $32,000 third-level allowance (race 1) that drew seven fillies and mares, and a $28,000 entry-level allowance (race 9) that drew a field of 10 Illinois-breds, including a Richard Hazelton entry.

Hazelton, the fourth-winningest trainer in North American racing history with about 4,500 wins, is one of a handful of veterans whose stables normally come out firing early. Frank Kirby, Mike Reavis, and Pat Cuccurullo also figure prominently among the local training contingent.

Hawthorne also will hold an 11-race Saturday card, but after that, the track will go dark for five days before a more conventional racing schedule resumes next Friday.