10/28/2008 11:00PM

Rare dirt race for Fort Prado

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STICKNEY, Ill. - Forgive the gray horse with the distinctive pink patch on his upper foreleg if he stares strangely at his feet loading into the gate for the Lightning Jet Handicap on Saturday at Hawthorne. It has been a long time since Fort Prado found himself in a dirt race.

Two years and close to two months, to be fairly precise, but Fort Prado has recently come back into form, and with no immediately suitable turf option for the 7-year-old Illinois-bred, he was one of seven horses entered in the $100,000 Lightning Jet, one of six Illinois-bred stakes race on the Saturday program.

Like several of the stakes, the Lightning Jet came up somewhat light in terms of quantity, but this is a fairly interesting race, with Illinois-bred sprint standbys Mighty Rule and High Expectations also entered, and 3-year-old Classic R. J. a wire-to-wire threat.

Fort Prado ran into a fence before his racing days began, an incident that created that pink patch that makes him an easy horse to identify, even for casual fans. But those fans are not used to seeing Fort Prado on dirt. His last such race came on Sept. 3, 2006, but that was only a one-race dirt venture. Before then, Fort Prado hadn't started in a dirt race since midsummer 2004.

But it's not that Fort Prado was helpless on dirt, and needed a surface switch just to stand up. While Fort Prado has won 15 races and earned more than $1 million on grass, his dirt record is 1-1-1 from 5 starts. Two of those races were off-the-turf, two-turn heats at Fair Grounds, while Fort Prado still was a maiden, and hadn't yet found himself, and his third dirt try produced a 4 1/2-length win in the Springfield Stakes, a one-turn mile at Arlington, which came before Arlington went Polytrack.

"He's trained over it a lot, and since he started his career out on dirt, I think he'll be able to adapt," trainer Chris Block said Wednesday morning. Block said Fort Prado shipped into Hawthorne on about Oct. 11, and he has gotten in two solo works over the main track.

"He seemed to go fine," said Block.

Between May and September, Fort Prado's career looked like it might be turning to twilight. He finished sixth once and fourth twice, and was second as the heavy favorite in the Black Tie Affair for Illinois-breds at Arlington, a race he had won three years in a row. But Fort Prado came back around. He finished second, beaten a neck, in the Kentucky Cup Turf Dash at Kentucky Downs, then finished a fast-closing and close third of 12 in the Shakertown at Keeneland.

So, Fort Prado's spark is back. Whether that spark will transfer to dirt, we will find out on Saturday.

Gaming officials tour track

Illinois Gaming Board officials toured Hawthorne on Monday as part of the process the board will use to select three final bidders for a 10th Illinois casino license. Hawthorne partnered with investors and casino developers to submit one of seven bids for the license with the board earlier this month. The three finalists for the license will soon be released, and the board has stated a desire to award the license - vacant for more than 10 years - by the end of the year.

Hawthorne's bid of $150 million was far less than the top monetary bid, $455 million from a Rosemont-based group, but the gaming board has said that the base amount of bids won't be the sole determining factor in awarding the license.

Hawthorne president Tim Carey on Wednesday emphasized Hawthorne's stated ability to quickly have a casino up and running in an existing space as a major asset.

"Structurally, we're really suited to being a casino," Carey said. "We have so much existing square footage, and we could be up and running in six months."

Carey said that while the board had hoped to announce the three finalists as early as this weekend, the pared-down list of bidders probably won't be released until mid-November.

The Illinois legislature has for several years considered statewide gaming expansion that could bring slot-machines to racetracks, but so far, proposed legislation has gone nowhere. Hawthorne, seeking another avenue, decided to apply directly for a casino license.

Hawthorne, in a sign of troubled racing times here in Illinois, just cut purses for most races beginning this weekend. Carey said a significant decline in betting on full-card simulcasting at Hawthorne and Illinois offtrack betting locations necessitated the purse cut.

* The apprentice rider Lyndie Wade is unretired. After saying he was quitting as a jockey to return to school, Wade changed his mind, and was back on horses here Wednesday. His agent, Jay Fedor, said Wade had never gotten as far as leaving Chicago, and planned to ride the remainder of the meet here.