11/29/2004 12:00AM

Snow and rain keep runners in their barns

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CHICAGO - It's not supposed to be pretty, December racing at Hawthorne. But the weather here has taken a turn for the worse, eroding racing conditions and confounding horsemen and bettors alike.

Wind, rain, and snow canceled half of last Wednesday's card. The track was closed for training on Thursday, Thanksgiving, but nobody rushed to squeeze in a breeze when Hawthorne reopened the next morning: Not one timed workout was recorded Friday. Six horses worked Saturday morning. They had things better than the ones who raced in the afternoon. The track was a sea of mud, and a south wind whipped cold rain. The surface was closed for training again Sunday, to ready it for racing, and in sloppy conditions Monday, a grand total of 17 horses worked.

This week's forecast? Snow on Monday night, rain and snow Tuesday, snow Tuesday night. Things are not looking up.

"If the racetrack's not better than it was this morning, my filly's not running," said trainer Gene Brajcewski, who put Turn to Lass in Hawthorne's featured third race Wednesday.

Turn to Lass was one of seven horses entered in the feature, a high-end six-furlong allowance with a $50,000 claiming option. Mudders are preferred.

"She likes a wet track," Brajcewski said of Turn to Lass. "She'll run if it's wet-fast, but I can't take a chance if it's sloppy. They're doing the best they can with the track. But now they're saying two inches of snow on Tuesday night."

Turn to Lass ran once at Hawthorne last fall, winning an entry-level allowance race by three lengths. She went on to finish second and third in stakes at Churchill, Delta, and Fair Grounds, and won the $50,000 Martha Washington last February at Oaklawn. But shortly thereafter, Turn to Lass was bucking and playing after a regular training session when she fell on pavement, suffered some micro-fractures, and required an extensive period of rest.

Her comeback race was no good, a distant last in a six-horse allowance field Nov. 5 at Churchill.

"It was real disappointing," Brajcewski conceded.

Pass the Pepper is the one to beat Wednesday, especially in mud, where she has two wins and a second from three starts. The only horse entered under the claiming option, Pass the Pepper has the speed to make a clear early lead - but that has not helped her win a race yet in 2004. Her supporters will be asked to take something like even money on a horse winless in six starts this year.

Sterling headed for warmer clime

Maybe eating frigid mud Saturday afternoon helped spur his decision. In any case, the jockey Larry Sterling is leaving Hawthorne for what is left of the season. Sterling, who will return to ride the unbeaten Illinois-bred Humor at Last in a Dec. 18 stakes, will shift his tack to Southern California and begin taking mounts at Hollywood Park on Dec. 10. His agent, Michelle Barsotti, suggested Sterling would be pointing for the Santa Anita meet that begins later in the winter.

Sterling and Barsotti, who came from California to take his book this past summer, both have family in California. Business figures to be slow for Sterling, but there is no racing in Chicago for almost two months starting in early January, so he has little to lose.

Sterling, however, misses out on his chance to be leading rider here. Through Sunday, he had closed to within seven victories of Chris Emigh, who sits atop the standings. Sterling has won plenty of trophies on Chicago's Southwest Side. At this point, apparently, more important considerations - warmth, for instance - take priority.

Robertson's juvenile talent abounds

The trainer Hugh Robertson has still another promising 2-year-old, a filly named Dimple Pinch, who easily won an entry-level route allowance here Friday. Robertson already has put away for the season Three Hour Nap, who won the Arlington-Washington Futurity, and Stormy Afternoon, one of the fastest Illinois-breds of his generation.

Dimple Pinch also is unlikely to run again until 2005, though Robertson sounded on Monday like he would consider the right late-season minor stakes race - if one existed.

"I haven't really looked around yet," he said.

Dimple Pinch won her career debut in a sprint, but she looked even better racing two turns Friday.

"She seems like a pretty nice filly, but I guess she hasn't beaten much," Robertson said. "I always thought, from watching her, that she'd like going long. She might be a borderline stakes horse."

Robertson will send a string of horses to Oaklawn Park in the next couple of weeks, and Dimple Pinch is likely to be among them.