02/23/2007 12:00AM

Weather is cold, but welcome is warm

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STICKNEY, Ill. - You'd think a couple guys who expected to spend the winter in Florida but found themselves holed up at an Extended Stay America just off I-55 on the southwest side of Chicago would be moping around, heads down.

But as gritty as their unexpected accommodations might feel, Derek Bell and Terry Houghton were happy campers Friday, opening day at Hawthorne Race Course.

That's because Bell and Houghton, two of the jockeys banned from riding at several racetracks because of an ongoing investigation by the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, were permitted to resume their careers Friday after an unplanned two-month hiatus. Both have been regulars at Tampa Bay Downs - Bell for 10 years, Houghton 12 - but were suddenly denied access to the grounds in mid-December.

"I went to the [jockeys'] room, had one mount that day, and two guys from the TRPB were there," Bell said. "They said, 'You have till the end of the day to clean your stuff out.'"

Said Houghton: "I was totally shocked. I'd never been in any trouble my entire career."

A specific account of the TRPB's investigation has never been provided to Bell or Houghton, though the probe is thought to focus on suspicious betting patterns. Officials at Hawthorne - as well as Canterbury Park, Bell's summer home - say they haven't been shown why the jockeys shouldn't be permitted to ride. Tampa Bay Downs exercised its right to bar individuals from private property when it banned the jockeys. Hawthorne has adopted a different stance.

So, too, have most horsemen, according to both Bell and Houghton, who each had several mounts on opening day.

"People seem glad that I'm back," Bell said. "Everyone I've met here is more than willing to put me on horses."

Both riders said the last couple months have been an emotional roller coaster. Their names have been implicated in malfeasance, but neither says he even knows what allegations, if any, have been levied against them. Bell said he felt like punching a hole in his locker the day he was told he had to leave Tampa. Houghton said that after the ban was enforced, he couldn't speak with his mother for several days. Both would break down in tears, trying to talk about what was happening.

"Why are they doing this," Houghton said. "I don't know."

Hawthorne president Tim Carey said both jockeys were welcome to continue riding at the meet, provided neither was indicted or more damning evidence against them was produced. Both said they planned to ride out the meet, with Bell headed back to Canterbury later in the spring, and plans up in the air for Houghton.

Still, this was not what either rider had in mind for their winter. On Friday, it was 80 degrees in Tampa, about 32 in Chicago.

"I used to go to Turfway for the winter," said Houghton, "and this is the reason I stopped."

Mrs. Queenie maybe fastest in Sunday feature

After sporting higher-end allowance races on its first two programs of the meet, Hawthorne goes without a true feature on Sunday's nine-race card. The only allowance on the program is race 8, a six-furlong sprint for Illinois-bred entry-level allowance horses.

Say what you want about the race's quality, but there are plenty of horses here - a full field of 12, plus one horse on the also-eligible list. The race has several speed horses, and Mrs. Queenie might be the fastest of them. She last raced Jan. 1, finishing second of 12 in an open entry-level allowance. Others of note are Sultry Venture, who won her only start last year at age 2, and Jimmy G's Girl, who finished far behind Mrs. Queenie on New Year's Day, but had a tough trip that race, and had won her maiden well two starts ago.