03/24/2010 11:00PM

Win-machine Helicopter is no sure thing


STICKNEY, Ill. - There are nine sprinters entered in a second-level optional $30,000 claimer in the featured sixth race on Saturday at Hawthorne. But none of those horses has won as many races in their career as Helicopter did in 2009 alone.

Helicopter, set to make his 2010 debut in race 1, a $5,000 starter allowance, notched nine victories last season, tying him with two others for second in terms of North American wins by a horse. Only Calm and Collected, who won 10 of 15, visited the winner's circle more last year.

A few funny things about Helicopter, who has five foes in the 1 1/16-mile race.

First, he began last year as a 14-race maiden. Talk about getting a wake-up call.

Second, trainer and then co-owner Larry Rivelli lost him via a claim on July 26 at Arlington Park, but Rivelli was discouraged enough about this to buy Helicopter back privately, something one can do in Illinois 30 days after a claim has been made. And this was a good idea, since Helicopter went on to win four more times last year, including a starter allowance at Keeneland, and a $73,748 entry-level allowance at Woodbine.

But finally, Helicopter, for all the success he had in 2009 ($108,205 in earnings despite racing at a class level as low as $5,000 nonwinners-of-two), has compiled just a 1-for-20 win mark in his dirt races. That lone score did come at Hawthorne last fall, but it was in a 1 1/4-mile race. So do not be entirely surprised if Helicopter begins 2010 with a short-odds loss.

As for Saturday's actual feature, Will's Honey looks pretty solid. Will's Honey exits a March 3 second-place finish to the tough sprinter Big Rushlet while competing one class level higher than he does Saturday.

Sunday racing begins

After starting out during February with three-day racing weeks (Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday), and then adding Wednesdays during March, Hawthorne commences full-blown five-day-per-week racing this week with Sundays now in the mix. The additional racing day could tax Chicago's equine population, but the Fair Grounds meet ends Sunday, and the Oaklawn season also is winding down, both factors that should help Hawthorne fill races. After 19 days of the ongoing meet, Hawthorne was averaging 7.45 starters per race, hardly a robust figure, but up from 6.98 starters per race during a similar number of days during spring 2009.