02/27/2003 12:00AM

Ready or not, it's racing season

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STICKNEY, Ill. - Directly to the south are boilers and cooling towers belching steam into the frigid air. Directly to the north sits a massive white elephant, a dubious reminder of recent winters past. Around the deep and dusty main track go horses with heavy coats, silently content in their work while oblivious to a turf course still dead and brown.

Yes, it is still winter in Chicago - but ready or not, here it comes. Hawthorne Race Course, the venerable racetrack located just southwest of downtown Chicago, launches the 2003 Illinois racing season with a 48-day meet that starts Saturday.

Technically, the meet is known as National Jockey Club-at-Hawthorne, a result of the merger between the host track and the company that for many years conducted winter-spring horse racing at next-door neighbor Sportsman's Park. Unfortunately for the NJC, its grandiose expansion of a once-thriving racetrack into a dual automobile- and horse-racing facility was a failure, forcing the company to abandon all significant activity there last year. The vast but useless Sportsman's grandstand dominates the Hawthorne backdrop.

As the transition to a permanent lease arrangement unfolds, the NJC has had to swallow many bitter pills. Its annual showcase race, the Illinois Derby, last year drew more attention than ever in the aftermath of the Kentucky Derby. War Emblem followed his Sportsman's victory with a similar front-running romp at Churchill Downs, immediately casting Sportsman's into the national limelight.

This year's meet will be highlighted by the Illinois Derby, and NJC officials are hoping that a budding star will pull off another Derby double. Badge of Silver, the romping winner of the Risen Star at Fair Grounds, is expected to make his final Kentucky Derby prep here April 5 in the $500,000 Illinois Derby.

Until then, the meet figures to proceed in a rather quiet manner, since the first six-figure stakes, the $100,000 Lady Hallie, will not be run until March 29. Nonetheless, the racing should be attractive from a horseplayer's standpoint, with the opening 10-race card a prime example. Exactly 100 horses are scheduled to run, yielding the full-field effect that fans prefer.

The opening-day feature is the $40,000 Hula Chief Stakes at six furlongs. Gold Taker, a recent winner at Fair Grounds for trainer Louie Roussel, should be the horse to catch and beat.

Purses on opening day total $209,500, just short of the $220,000 daily average that racing secretary Gary Duch has forecast for the meet.