Saturday, April 4, Hawthorne
The Low-Down: Run between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness prior to 2001, the Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby has morphed into a legitimate Triple Crown prep. All of the recent Illinois Derby winners have continued on to Louisville, and in 2002, War Emblem parlayed his Chicago score into a longshot wire job under the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs.
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who has yet to win a Kentucky Derby, has taken down the Illinois Derby three times in the past eight years. He's entered three of the 11 programmed horses this year, but only two of those -- AL KHALI and IL POSTINO -- are expected to run. Tampa Bay Derby winner MUSKET MAN is the only graded-stakes winner in the field, but several cast members have the potential to take their game to a new level, including GIANT OAK, NOWHERE TO HIDE, PERFECT SONG and FREE COUNTRY. All of these horses are vying for the all-important, graded-stakes earnings that would punch their ticket to Kentucky.
Our Eyes: The model of consistency, MUSKET MAN has won four of five career starts, and he proved his class by winning the Tampa Bay Derby last out at odds of 5-1. Shuffled back early on, he showed plenty of grit and tenacity, closing into moderate fractions to get up in just the nick of time. In a race that doesn't appear to be overloaded with speed, his tactical ability should put him in a perfect spying position. That brings us to PERFECT SONG. With the likely defection of LORD JUSTICE, whom Todd Pletcher has also entered in the Wood Memorial, this son of Pleasantly Perfect could find himself unchallenged on the front end. Trained by Michael Trombetta, who won the '06 edition of the Illinois Derby with Sweetnorthernsaint, PERFECT SONG turned heads in his January debut at Philadelphia Park, winning by 6+ lengths while under wraps. He got beat in a follow-up allowance start over the Turfway Park Polytrack, but returned to post a wire job at Laurel in what was his first attempt around two turns. The pedigree suggests he will handle the added eighth of a mile.
Thought of as a turf/synthetics horse early in his 2-year-old season, GIANT OAK gave trainer Chris Block a dose of Derby fever after finishing a hard charging second behind Beethoven in the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. A victim of a horrible trip in the Risen Star in his sophomore debut, he may have been compromised by a sloppy track in the Louisiana Derby. The Illinois-based connections seriously considered the Blue Grass for their son of Giant's Causeway, but elected to give him another shot on dirt in their own backyard. He will need honest fractions in order to be effective. A respectable fourth in the Risen Star in his sophomore debut, the Nick Zito-trained NOWHERE TO HIDE was the victim of both a poor ride and a tough trip in the Tampa Bay Derby last out. A horse with tactical speed, he was inexplicably taken back to last. Forced to close into a slow pace to begin with, he also ran seven-wide down the stretch, finishing fourth, but galloping out past the wire as well as any other horse in the race. He takes the blinkers off Saturday, and is well drawn on the rail. A 9-furlong allowance winner in the first start of his '09 campaign at Gulfstream, FREE COUNTRY was sent off as the 9-5 favorite in the Sam F. Davis at Tampa, but he tossed in a fourth place clunker. Blinkers went on for the Risen Star, but he hated the sloppy Fair Grounds conditions, making a brief middle move before tossing in the towel. The hood comes off on Saturday, and perhaps the light will go on.
The Peruvian import AL KHALI returned off a 4 ½ month layoff to post a game victory in his U.S. debut over 9 furlongs at Gulfstream. It wasn't the toughest allowance race, but you must respect the team of Pletcher and jockey Cornelio Velasquez. The nine-post will not make his task any easier. IL POSTINO, Pletcher's other horse, finished up the track in the first two races of his career. Dropped in for a $20,000 maiden tag with blinkers on last out at Gulfstream, he did a compete 180, dusting his competition by nearly 12 lengths under a hand ride.
The Bottom Line: MUSKET MAN is proven, PERFECT SONG may have a tactical advantage and GIANT OAK is due for a little luck, but to me, NOWHERE TO HIDE has the most upside and the price should be square. In a 10-horse field, an across the board play on the Zito charge is in order. I'll also key NOWHERE TO HIDE first and second in the exactas with GIANT OAK, PERFECT SONG, MUSKET MAN, FREE COUNTRY, AL KHALI and IL POSTINO.
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