03/01/2003 1:00AM

Nothing beats live racing


STICKNEY, Ill. - The meaning of a new Chicago racing season wasn't lost on the 5,126 racing-starved fans who turned out Saturday at Hawthorne Race Course.

The new season also represented an opportunity for Classic Appeal to erase the memory of his frustrating 2002. Ridden by Carlos Silva, Classic Appeal rallied from mid-pack to post a 2 1/4-length victory in the opening-day feature, the $43,200 Hula Chief Stakes, rewarding his backers with a $9.60 win mutuel.

Classic Appeal, now 6, was a multiple stakes winner early in his career for Asiel Stable and trainer Richard Hazelton but went winless in 10 starts last year. Like most of the horses that raced on the Saturday opener, Classic Appeal was making his first start of the year.

"Everything went perfect," said Silva.

On a gray and typically chilly afternoon, Magic Doe finished second at 43-1 in the six-furlong Hula Chief. Gold Taker, the 2-1 favorite, faded to third, another 1 1/4 lengths back in the field of eight older horses.

Saturday marked the first day of live racing in Chicago in two months. The card opened with a wire-to-wire victory by Sir Joe Kelly ($13.80), ridden by Eddie Perez. The 5-year-old horse is named for renowned racetrack bugler Joe Kelly, who retired at the end of the Arlington meet last year.

Sir Joe Kelly is trained by Gust Zissides, who made a jubilant exit from the winner's circle. "This feels great," said Zissides, trainer of a small stable. "I'm the leading trainer now."

Tom Carey III, managing director of Hawthorne, said he was "really pleased with how opening day went. The fans are glad to have live racing back, and you could tell by the electricity that was in the air today."

Late in the card, Carey said handle was up substantially over similar figures for opening day last year at next-door neighbor Sportsman's Park, where racing has ceased. Hawthorne and Sportsman's have merged companies since last year.

* Marlon St. Julien will soon join the jockey colony here. St. Julien, a former leading rider at Lone Star Park, has been riding most recently at Turfway Park, which has been plagued by weather-related cancellations. Keary Sibille is St. Julien's new agent.

* Jockey agent Lindy McDaniel is now working for Shane Laviolette, whose longtime former agent, Justin Cassity, is now the agent for Jeremy Beasley in Texas. McDaniel also will continue to book mounts for Eddie Razo Jr.

* Hawthorne will begin its online handicapping contest March 8. The ChiTown Challenge, as it is known, offers a first prize of $5,000.