04/14/2008 11:00PM

Three Graces looks best in turf opener

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STICKNEY, Ill. - The winter was icy cold, the spring so far been about nonexistent, but those thin patches of grass covering the Hawthorne

turf course will nevertheless be put to use for the first time in 2008 on Thursday. The nine-race Hawthorne program includes a pair of grass races, the first of the year in Chicago.

Turf racing this season already has been pushed back 10 days from last year, when the Hawthorne turf was first used on Illinois Derby Day, April 7. But while no one will apply the word "lush" or any of its relatives to describe the present Hawthorne course, assistant general manager Jim Miller said the grass course is in more than adequate condition to handle racing until this meet ends April 28.

"Take into account we ran 30 more races on it last fall leading into this spring," Miller said. "There's more bare spots, but it was in much better condition last fall than it was in prior falls. It's been rolled, it's perfectly even, and everything is growing. It's not perfect, but we're looking for 10 days of racing out of it."

Thursday's fifth race, the first Chicago grass race of the season, is for entry-level allowance-class fillies and mares, and it drew a field of eight. The filly on the rail, Three Graces, looks like the one to beat, but only if her dirt form transfers to turf. Three Graces, a half-sister to Exhale, who was briefly on the 2007 Kentucky Derby trail, won her maiden by three lengths sprinting on the Hawthorne dirt track last fall, and faced much tougher foes - Eight Belles, Highest Class - in recent starts at Fair Grounds than she meets on Thursday.

"She's been facing good horses at Fair Grounds, I know that," said trainer Richie Scherer. "She's proven on the dirt. We'll have to see how she does on turf."

Three Graces is by Doneraile Court, which doesn't scream out turf, but is out of a mare by the grass champion Manila.

If not Three Graces, then the one to beat is perhaps Nijinsky Ballet, who finished seventh in a minor Churchill turf stakes to finish her

2-year-old season, and cleared the maiden ranks over the Hawthorne grass course last fall. Elegant Kitten also could contend if she moves forward after a fifth-place finish at Tampa Bay Downs in her 2008 debut.

Thursday's other turf race, the ninth, also is for entry-level allowance horses, but is restricted to Illinois-breds. Classic Sky, Call Me Goer, and Stolen Glory appear to be the main contenders.

Fields for two graded stakes

Two of this meet's three graded stakes, the Bill Hartack Memorial and the Sixty Sails, are scheduled for Saturday's card, which was drawn on Monday. The Grade 3 Hartack, which was called the National Jockey Club Handicap until this year, drew just five entries, while the Grade 3 Sixty Sails got a deeper field of eight.

The "name" horse in the Hartack is Fairbanks, who ships in for trainer Todd Pletcher. But while Fairbanks has been a regular in graded stakes routes the last two years, he has never won a race of consequence, and was a well-beaten sixth just two Saturdays ago in the Oaklawn Handicap.

Fairbanks may still be favored in the Hartack, but he will have to beat Good and Lucky, who comes off a strong win in the Gulf Coast Classic at Delta Downs. The three others are Mr. Champ, Mister Triester, and Ryan's for Real.

Tessa Blue, second in the Rampart Handicap at Gulfstream last out, tops the Sixty Sails, which also drew the Rampart third-place finishers, Golden Velvet.

The rest of the field, starting from the rail, is: Unforgotten, Rayona, Lost Etiquette, Kathleens Reel, Cryptoquip, and Coolwind.