11/08/2002 1:00AM

Pick your longshots carefully


STICKNEY, Ill. - Chalk players are ready to go into hiding at Hawthorne. Through Thursday's program, favorites had won only 24 percent of the races during the first five days of this meet. Full fields, a significantly speed-biased main track, and a fundamental shift in the qualities needed to win races have combined to bury many short-priced horses.

On Wednesday, the average win price here was $20, while Thursday's average winning mutuel was a healthy $17. After a couple shorter-priced winners early on the card, winners of the last five races paid between $10.80 and $42.

What's going on here?

Horses have come here from various venues, and in any given Hawthorne race you may find running lines from Great Lakes Downs, Fairmount Park, Hoosier Park, and Prairie Meadows, to say nothing of Arlington. Those Arlington lines can be deceiving. Horses winning races there are not necessarily horses suited to winning races at Hawthorne. Moreover, Hawthorne's main track and turf course have catered to speed during several programs.

And try wading through one of these cards if you're used to handicapping races with five or six horses. About half the races at the meet have been graced with full fields, making them ripe for price plays.

"The racing's really not un-formful," said Joe Kristufek, a noted local handicapper. "Some trainers were 'giving' horses races at Arlington, and some horses coming back fresh haven't looked that good on paper."

There's nothing spectacular on Sunday's nine-race program, just five more races with fields of 12, one with 11, and one with 10. One of the 12-horse fields is the fifth, a first-level turf allowance for fillies that's nominally the day's feature.

Beret looks like a standout in the field, but take nothing for granted at this meet. A maiden winner on Aug. 30 at Arlington, Beret didn't race again for almost two months, but she was very good when she returned.

Racing during Breeders' Cup week, Beret missed winning the $45,000 Hatoof Stakes by only a head, caught in the last couple jumps by the turf filly Attico. Beret has tactical speed, which has been very important on this tight-turned grass course, and there is little reason to suspect she will not run her race Sunday.

Sultry Sreva is one of those horses that had an Arlington tightener. A close fourth to Attico in an Oct. 11 allowance, Sultry Sreva appears to be set up for a peak effort.

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