02/27/2002 12:00AM

Track surface draws heavy praise from horsemen

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Sportsman's track surface may arrive on a truck, but everyone seems to love it.

The racetrack disappears during the summer, but, as has been the case for most of its two years of use, the surface is drawing strong reviews from area horsemen.

"It's been a very good track," said trainer Frank Kirby, who typically has strong Sportsman's meets. "It's probably even better this year because we've had good weather."

Sportsman's removes its horse racing surface after its winter-spring meet in order to ready the facility for summer auto racing, then trucks the material back in during the winter. The surface seems safe and lively, though Sportsman's has come to be known as an inside speed track.

"They've been breezing fast, but it's got a nice cushion," said trainer Christine Janks, who has about 35 horses stabled on the backstretch of Hawthorne Race Course, since Sportsman's has no barns of its own.

"This track is absolutely excellent," trainer Gene Bracjewski said. "I had two fillies work that went really fast, but they were just breezing out there. It's a very safe racetrack."

Unusually good winter weather that has helped track superintendent Al Jozwiak maintain the track also has been a boon to local horsemen. Trainers that winter in Chicago usually cede a conditioning edge to horses shipping into Sportsman's from warmer venues, but that may not be the case this year, as Sportsman's has lost only one day of training since the track opened at the beginning of the year.

"Lots of people should be ready since we haven't had to miss much training," Janks said.

Tomillo's stable ready

One trainer who is certainly ready for Sportsman's is Tom Tomillo, who has spent the winter at Fair Grounds winning more races in New Orleans than he usually does. But Tomillo has been surprising people for the last year. After a very strong Arlington meet last summer, Tomillo won his first training title, leading the standings at Hawthorne's fall-winter meet.

Sportsman's has historically been Tomillo's bread and butter, and this year should be no exception.

"I think we'll do real good up there," he said. "By the time we get everything up there, we'll have 56 horses."

Expect most of them to be ready to run. Tomillo has many horses going at Fair Grounds who will move right into competition at Sportsman's, and has been training about 20 horses at a training center across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. Add to that the horses Tomillo kept in Illinois over the winter and his stable has the potential to contend for the training title at Sportsman's.

Tomillo credits his recent success to upgrades in his stock. "We've just claimed better horses," said Tomillo, who has claimed about six horses during the Fair Grounds meet.

Cashel Castle to race Saturday

The undefeated 3-year-old Cashel Castle will make his 2002 debut in an open allowance race at 5 1/2 furlongs on Saturday. Cashel Castle, who won the $100,000 Hoosier Juvenile by eight lengths in his last start of 2001, was to have started in the Hutcheson Stakes in January at Gulfstream, but came out of a workout shortly before the race with what appeared to be an injury and missed that race.

Fortunately, Cashel Castle's injury turned out to be minor, trainer Chris Block said, and the colt was able to resume training only a few days after the incident.

Block hesitates to call Cashel Castle a Kentucky Derby contender at the moment. He has reservations about how far Cashel Castle wants to run, and the colt has never raced around two turns. Besides, Block said, "We're into March now and he hasn't even raced yet."

Block is looking at a couple stakes races in April for Cashel Castle and is focusing on the Grade 3 Lafayette Stakes, a seven-furlong race at Keeneland. Block said he would also consider stretching Cashel Castle out to two turns in the Illinois Derby.

Lasix rules changed

Eddie Arroyo, the chief steward at Sportsman's, said rules governing the use of Lasix in Chicago have changed. Horses running on Lasix in other states that ship in to Chicago to race now automatically will be listed as Lasix users. That's a departure from previous policy, when horses had to have a bleeder's certificate in order to race with Lasix in Chicago.

The rule change significantly affects horses based in Kentucky who come to Chicago to race. Kentucky does not require a bleeder's certificate in order for a horse to race on Lasix, and in the past Kentucky-based horses often have had to race without Lasix when first coming to Chicago.

The English are coming

Three English women are teaming up to try to win Friday's sixth race with Ski Hero. Hilary Pridham trains Ski Hero and Zoe Cadman, who grew up near Pridham in England, will ride him. Cadman's new agent, Penny Fitch-Heyes, also is British.

Fitch-Heyes only recently has taken over booking mounts for Cadman, who won the riding title last spring at Hawthorne as an apprentice. Cadman lost her apprentice allowance last summer at Arlington but made the transition to journeyman rider fairly well, though her business was down last winter at Hawthorne.

Cadman, who took January off and began working horses again in February at Fair Grounds, believes her new agent will help.

"She'll hustle for you," Cadman said. "I've got a pretty good amount of business lined up. It's always out there if you're willing to work for it."

Add $1 million Triple Crown bonus

Sportsman's has tweaked its stakes schedule this season, dropping a couple stakes races and reducing the purse of the National Jockey Club Oaks from $150,000 to $100,000. Those changes have allowed Sportsman's to increase stakes races offering $50,000 purses last year to $100,000 this year, and to bump the purses for the six races on Illinois Champions Day up to $100,000 each.

Sportsman's also is offering for the first time a $1 million bonus to any horse that wins the April 6 Illinois Derby and any Triple Crown race.