12/14/2007 1:00AM

Runners with tags head sprint

EmailSTICKNEY, Ill. - One handicapping strategy in this age of the optional claimer is to look for horses in such races entered under allowance conditions rather than for a claiming tag. The idea is that the horses with real substance won't be risked at the claim box while they climb the allowance ladder.

That strategy will get a handicapper almost nowhere in the featured fourth race Sunday at Hawthorne. This optional claimer is carded for six furlongs and open to fourth-level allowance types or horses entered for a claiming price between $80,000 and $100,000. Six were entered, and the two horses without a claiming tag attached don't look like major contenders. Both He's Hot Sauce and Big Rushlet are decent animals, but their connections are protecting against a claim, since both appear to have a future in Illinois-bred stakes.

To get to the heart of the Sunday feature, you have to go to the claimers, and after all, it's not like these horses are being given away: $50,000 claims are a rarity in Chicago, and it would raise eyebrows if a horse like Star by Design or Reigning Court were taken out of the race. Both are entered for a $100,000 tag, and Star by Design should be especially tough at this class level.

Trainer Richard Hazelton considered shipping Star by Design to Turfway Park for a stakes race, but Hazelton is not one to leave home if he doesn't have to. Besides, Hawthorne is Star by Design's favorite racetrack. He has won half of his eight Hawthorne starts and has finished worse than third only once here.

Star by Design was upset in an overnight stakes late last winter, but he finished second in that race and has won his other three recent Hawthorne outings. The last of those came in the Oct. 13 Rustic Ruler, where Star by Design had to work to beat Celluloid Hero. But Celluloid Hero probably is better than the competition that Star by Design faces Sunday, and Star by Design's gap between starts came only because Hazelton had no suitable spot for the horse.

Reigning Court actually was claimed for $80,000 two races ago by owner Adam Sobczak and trainer Scott Sowle, who sent their new horse to Mountaineer Park for a high-end allowance race Nov. 10 and came out a 6 1/4-length winner. Reigning Court has never raced at Hawthorne, but his early speed could be effective if the racetrack is frozen and playing fast.

Smoke Smoke Smoke, who is entered for an $80,000 claiming price, won a stakes race here three springs ago, but has won no races of any kind the last two calendar years.