12/16/2005 1:00AM

Season slows as barns seek warmer climes

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CHICAGO - The snow falls almost every day now, and as Chicago creeps ever deeper into winter, the end of a long racing season draws closer. Ten racing days remain in this Hawthorne season, and the pace of the meet clearly is beginning to slow.

Entries have been strong all season, and Hawthorne continues to fill its races at or before noon on the day they're drawn, a far cry from the schedule at Arlington, when the draw occasionally concludes shortly before sundown. But only 76 were entered on the Sunday card, a number below the meet's average starters per race, and that before any scratches.

Moreover, morning activity has markedly declined this week, even though the weather has not been terrible. From Wednesday to Friday, only 76 horses recorded timed workouts; on an especially busy summer morning at Arlington, about that many breeze in the 45 minutes after the renovation break. The stables that are wintering somewhere warmer are gradually dispersing, and as more and more horses make their final starts of the Chicago season, the population will dwindle to a few hundred gritty animals that will remain after the close of the meet on Jan. 2.

And if the featured seventh race Sunday looks familiar, it is not just a trick of memory. This two-turn female-restricted race for third-level allowance horses or $35,000 claimers was carded last week, but was lost to weather. Racing secretary Gary Duch has helpfully brought it back, and the Sunday feature drew 10, though there are a pair of two-horse entries.

One of the couplings is from the barn of trainer Brian Williamson, whose 14 wins at the meet place him in a tie for ninth in the standings. Wayne Catalano, not content to dominate at Arlington, has 30 wins and appears to be on his way to a Hawthorne training title. But Catalano has only one horse in Sunday, and Williamson holds the best hand in the feature, though both of his horses, Capistrano and Tuffted, are Illinois-breds facing open company. How much should that matter? Not much, since seven of the 10 are Illinois-breds.

Capistrano's 10 starts are the fewest in the field, and she appears to have the greatest upside in the race. Capistrano cleared her final Illinois-bred allowance condition with an authoritative win in late October, and on Nov. 17, in her first start against open third-level allowance horses, she finished third of seven despite running into trouble as well as a sharp winner named Precocious Kat. In fact, Capistrano's stiffest competition may come from her stablemate. Tuffted has seemed to prefer turf to dirt, but won by two in an off-the-turf second-level Illinois-bred allowance in her last start.

Baird, ex-jockey and agent, dies at 85

Bobby Baird, a former jockey, trainer, and jockey agent, died Friday morning after apparently suffering an aneurysm the day before.

Baird, 85, rode in Chicago through the mid-1980's. After his retirement from riding, he had stints as a trainer and as an agent for his son, jockey E.T. Baird. Another son, Billy, works as a valet in Chicago.