09/21/2004 11:00PM

Only ambience changes

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CHICAGO - Less than 30 miles separate Arlington Park and Hawthorne Race Course, and only four days fall between the Arlington meet that ended Sunday and Hawthorne's racing season, which begins a 68-day run on Friday. Arlington, ringed by grapevines, sits on swank suburban property northwest of Chicago. Hawthorne could hardly be grittier. The bars here are called "Moose's" and "The Yellow House." A smelter rises to the east.

For all the stark ambient difference, there is continuity now to Chicago racing. The purses here and at Arlington fall into the same range, and except for a six-week mid-summer swing, many of the same horses race in the suburbs and Stickney, the incorporated area where Hawthorne sits.

There are 2,050 stalls at Hawthorne: Expect vacancies to be minimal, at least until later in the year, when Fair Grounds and Oaklawn draw some Chicago locals for the winter. Until then, fields should be good-sized and bettable, with Hawthorne racing officials hoping to keep the grass course in play through Thanksgiving, as the track did the last two seasons. Hawthorne averaged about nine horses per race last fall, and a similar number were entered on Friday's opener.

"Considering the amount of horseflesh we have coming over from Arlington, for the most part, I think we're going to have a good meet," said racing secretary Gary Duch.

The meet highlight is next weekend's $750,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup, a Breeders' Cup Classic prep again this season. Perfect Drift, the defending champ, is headed here for the race, and a win lands him a berth in the Oct. 30 Classic.

The other graded stakes on the schedule are the Hawthorne Derby for 3-year-old grass horses and the Carey Memorial for older turf runners. There are several spots for Illinois-bred stakes horses.

The trainer and jockey colonies will look much the same as in recent seasons, with the jocks' race perhaps coming down to Larry Sterling, Eddie Razo, and Chris Emigh. Mike Reavis, who does his best work on this side of town, could have a strong meet, but Arlington's leading trainer, Frank Kirby, still has bullets in his stable.

Racing is scheduled to go five days a week through meet's end, but at an Illinois Racing Board meeting Tuesday, general manager Thomas Carey III repeatedly stated Hawthorne has the option of cutting back to four-day weeks during December. Carey said he "desired" to hold to the five-day schedule, but would cut back if there weren't enough horses to support it.

At a glance: Hawthorne

RACING SCHEDULE: 68 days; Friday through Jan. 2, 2005, Wednesday-Sunday; racing Monday, Oct. 11; dark Thursday, Nov. 25, Saturday, Dec. 25

POST TIME: 1:10 p.m. Central

HIGHLIGHTS: Grade 2, $750,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup, Oct. 2; Grade 3, $250,000 Hawthorne Derby, Oct. 16; Grade 3, $150,000 Carey Memorial Handicap, Oct. 9; Illinois Day, six $100,000 statebred stakes, Nov. 13

ADMISSIONS: Grandstand, $2; clubhouse, $4

PARKING: General - free; clubhouse - $2; preferred clubhouse $3; preferred grandstand - $3; valet - $4.50

LOCATION: 3501 S. Laramie Ave., Stickney/Cicero IL, 60804

SIMULCASTING: Open daily for simulcasting (no simulcasting Dec. 25)

PHONE: (708) 780-3700

INTERNET: www.hawthorneracecourse.com