09/18/2006 12:00AM

View turf chalk with skeptic's eye

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CHICAGO - Short fields and chalk - a diet like bread and water for everyday handicappers. But the menu tends to change at Hawthorne, and the first three days of the fall meet have been no exception.

Fields have been at least decent size, and favorites - often strong ones - went down in flames during the three-day opening week at Hawthorne. The chalk so far has won only 7 of the first 27 races, and on turf, the results have been even less predictable: The first four grass races of the meet (Friday's races were rained off turf) failed to yield a winning favorite, with horses coming home at odds of 11-1, 5-1, 12-1, and 15-1.

So, it may pay to dig beneath the surface of the featured ninth race on Wednesday at Hawthorne, a second-level grass allowance carded at 1 1/16 miles. The race drew a full field of 12 entries, plus one more horse - Julie Truly - entered for the main track only.

The favorite figures to be Miss Laken, and once again the favorite might be worth trying to beat. Miss Laken, trained by Tom Proctor, started twice at the Arlington meet, finishing second in her first race there before breaking through the entry-level allowance condition with a late-running win in her most recent start on Aug. 26. But, though the Wednesday feature offers up no obvious standouts, this is a class climb for Miss Laken, whose late-running style leaves her vulnerable to traffic trouble and slow splits on the front end.

One upset candidate is Bottiglia, who must overcome post 12 if she is to win her first race since March 18. Bottiglia, a 5-year-old daughter of the good turf mare Ampulla, won two straight races during the summer of 2005 at Delaware Park, but since then has made only three starts, finishing 11th, fourth, and third. Bottiglia, who joined Mike Stidham's barn about two months ago, has worked steadily for her comeback.

"If she could run back to her form from last year, she'd have a shot," said Stidham.

Shingwedzi is rail-drawn and could luck into a good trip under Cisco Torres, while Pretty Jenny, languishing in this allowance condition since 2004, should get a clear, forwardly placed trip.

Road trips for Nicole's Dream

Crack turf sprinter Nicole's Dream is headed to Laurel Park this weekend for a $60,000 Battle of the Sexes Turf Handicap, but her main goal this fall is the Nov. 3 Cherokee Run Breeders' Cup, another five-furlong sprint - this one at Churchill Downs - which boasts a $250,000 purse.

After a slow start to her season, Nicole's Dream has finished first in four straight races, but was disqualified from a blowout win in an open allowance race Aug. 21 at Mountaineer Race Track. Trainer Larry Rivelli, who trains Nicole's Dream, said a racing commission hearing scheduled after Nicole's Dream's connections appealed the disqualification recently had been postponed until next month.

'Smoke' nearly race ready

Smoke Smoke Smoke, unraced since July 2005, is breezing steadily at Hawthorne, and is only "a work or two" away from a comeback race, trainer Mac Robertson said.

Smoke Smoke Smoke was among the region's best 3-year-old sprinters of 2005, when he won 4 of 7 starts and almost $200,000. Shelved because of physical issues, Smoke Smoke Smoke has had six workouts at Canterbury Park, Arlington, and most recently at Hawthorne.

"We'll probably look for something for him at Keeneland, unless a race comes up for him at Hawthorne," Robertson said.