02/27/2002 12:00AM

Only the sound of hooves


Sportsman's Park, at least temporarily, is out of the auto racing business it got into only three years ago. Its massive 70,000-seat grandstand, built to accommodate crowds at stock car races, will sit virtually empty during a 46-day Thoroughbred meet that begins Friday. The track is in discussions with neighboring Hawthorne Race Course about a potential merger that could move horse racing away from Sportsman's, perhaps permanently.

But there is also a justifiable sense of optimism as Sportsman's launches its third National Jockey Club meet since the track was converted to a dual-purse auto and horse racing facility - transforming the once-cozy track into a hulking giant with an uncertain future.

"We've just been concentrating on making sure this is a very good race meet," said Charlie Bidwill III, president of the National Jockey Club.

Sportsman's gets a shot in the arm simply because it's in Chicago. Arlington Park hosts the Breeders' Cup this October, the first time the Cup has come to Chicago, and local interest in horse racing should be more focused than in recent years.

Big-time racing also makes a stop here April 6 with the running of the $500,000 Illinois Derby. Sportsman's is offering a $1 million bonus to a horse that wins the Illinois Derby and any Triple Crown race.

Purses, which were already good last year, are up again to start this Sportsman's season. Racing officials said they hope to pay out between $190,000 and $200,000 daily, figures that will entice horsemen to run their stock now, rather than sitting on them until later in the year.

And the horses are out there. Racing secretary Alan Plever said there were 1,222 horses stabled at adjacent Hawthorne Race Course as of last Friday, with another couple of hundred expected to arrive. Also, Plever said a later start to the meet at Fairmount Park this year and a mild Chicago winter that has limited the amount of missed training time will help racing at Sportsman's.

Sportsman's averaged almost nine starters per race last season - a good number in this era - and the entries were especially strong for opening day.

Ninety-six horses were entered for a nine-race card highlighted by a six-furlong optional-claiming sprint for fillies and mares.

Soul Onarazorsedge should be a strong favorite in the race despite the fact that her immediate goal is the $100,000 Cicero Handicap on March 16.

Soul Onarazorsedge finished fourth in her last race, the $50,000 American Beauty at Oaklawn Park. She faced better horses in that race than she does Friday. According to trainer Gene Bracjewski, Soul Onarazorsedge "was full of mucus" after the American Beauty.