12/26/2007 1:00AM

O'Connell's enters deja vu zone

EmailSTICKNEY, Ill. - Trainer Hugh Robertson doesn't claim all that many horses these days, so it seemed notable when a horse named O'Connell's showed up among the entries for the first race on Dec. 8 at Hawthorne. Robertson had claimed O'Connell's - for none other than owner Hugh Robertson - out of a second-place finish a month earlier in a $25,000 claimer at Churchill Downs, and there he was racing for a $40,000 tag in a race also open to third-level allowance horses.

The apparently positive class hike meant everything. O'Connell's was hurt when he broke in the air, but helped by a quick early pace, came home with a strong late rally to win by a head. Now, the question is this: Can he do it again?

The conditions nearly are identical in Friday's first race at Hawthorne, another $40,000 optional claimer at the same 1 1/16 miles, and some of the same opposition. Mare's Ex was a head behind O'Connell's last time out, while Le Jester made a run at the top of the stretch but flattened out to finish a well-beaten third. Those three are joined in a compact field by Silver Legacy, who needs to improve significantly off his recent form to contend, and Contrary and Tally Up, who don't.

Contrary was a sharp entry-level allowance winner on Dec. 7, and though he skips an allowance class to start in this spot, Contrary sports a flashy half-mile work on Dec. 19, and may repeat his strong last-out performance. Tally Up, also racing Dec. 7, was heavily bet in a $25,000 claiming win, but got a perfect trip, slipping up the fence after stalking the pace while saving ground.

In fact, the biggest obstacle to an O'Connell's repeat might be the horse he just beat, Mare's Ex. Mare's Ex has had a somewhat checkered 2007 campaign, but appeared to run one of his better races of the season last time out. He held on well and was fighting back at the wire, and that after setting a quick pace to the half-mile. Friday, Mare's Ex might be able to make the lead without working as hard, and trainer Jim DiVito put a bullet five-furlong work into the horse on

Dec. 17.

* DiVito had mixed results last Saturday night at Mountaineer Racetrack. The 2-year-old West Coast Coach narrowly won an open allowance race in a game performance, but Coach Jimi Lee was defeated in a sprint stakes. Even so, Coach Jimi Lee's second-place finish was a marked improvement over his performance last out at Churchill Downs in his first race back from a layoff.