05/31/2001 11:00PM

Orienta is a beatable favorite

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STICKNEY, Ill. - Saturday's Sun Beau was the last stakes of Hawthorne's spring meet, and the final six racing days here will feed horseplayers a steady diet of claiming races with the odd allowance or two thrown in. Sunday's card is somewhat atypical, with four of the nine races written under allowance or optional claiming conditions.

The fifth, for fourth-level allowance or $40,000 claiming horses, is the highest-class race on the card, but it is not necessarily the best or the most bettable. Only seven horses were entered, and at best, they would be deemed a useful bunch. Among them, only Orienta won her most recent start, and on the basis of that race and her prolific win record she's likely to be favored.

Orienta, a 6-year-old mare owned by Cresran and trained by Steve Hobby, has won 16 of her 31 career starts, but perhaps none of them came under conditions as favorable as those presented May 21. The racetrack was muddy that day - Orienta loves the mud. And by the time she ran in the ninth race, the racetrack was heavily promoting speed - Orienta loves to run on the lead. At post time, Orienta looked virtually unbeatable that day, and indeed, she won off by more than four lengths.

Things may not break as favorable Sunday, but in order to stand against a vulnerable favorite one needs a viable alternative, and in this race that is difficult to come by. Claire's Keeper exits a solid $50,000 claimer at Churchill Downs and she has won two of five starts at Hawthorne. But her forte also is speed, and a duel with Orienta could tire both horses, setting the race up for a stalker like Sandy Bay Lady.

Once past the fifth, handicappers are faced with another common dilemma in the sixth race: How to rate an impressive maiden graduate in her first start against other winners.

Oglala Sue showed talent in her debut, had trouble in her second start, and finally put things together with a strong win here May 4. Oglala Sue is owned by Bluestem Farm, a Nebraska-based racing and breeding operation that mates many of its mares to the underappreciated stallion Verzy, Oglala Sue's sire. Hugh Roberston trains Oglala Sue, and since Robertson seems to instill good habits in his young and developing horses, the guess is Oglala Sue's career continues to arc upward Sunday.

Morgan assumes chief steward post

Steve Morgan has taken over the position of chief state steward in the wake of Rene Riera Jr.'s resignation this week. Morgan will hold the position on an interim basis.

Riera was given the option of being fired or handing over his resignation after the Illinois Racing Board decided he had mishandled a situation involving a horse's workout time here last month. A horse named Tender Hearted had a three-furlong workout officially posted as a 40.99-second work, though she actually worked three furlongs in just more than 46 seconds. Riera claims that the discrepancy was the result of miscommunication between the stewards and track clockers.