STICKNEY, Ill. -- Had Musket Man not finished first or second in the Illinois Derby on Saturday at Hawthorne Race Course, his passage was booked for a return to sleepy Tampa Bay Downs. But come Sunday morning at 7, Musket Man will be on his way to Churchill Downs - next stop, Kentucky Derby.
"I suppose we have to go now," trainer Derek Ryan said, tongue in cheek.
Musket Man won for the fifth time in six starts, captured his second straight graded stakes, moved to 2-for-2 in two-turn races, and was thoroughly impressive winning the $500,000 Illinois Derby by two lengths over Giant Oak. The top two both appeared to put in strong performances, stopping the timer in a fine 1:49.91 over a dry main track that was not producing fast times Saturday. His Greatness was five lengths back in third, followed by Nowhere to Hide. Pacesetting Perfect Song faded badly and wound up seventh.
Musket Man returns Eric Fein, who co-owns the colt with Vic Carlson, to the Derby for the second straight year - and Big Truck's 18th-place finish in 2008 won't be hard to better. Ryan, the trainer, heads to the Derby for the first time, and won just his third graded stakes Saturday. A former steeplechase rider, Ryan traveled on the horse van with Musket Man on the trip here from Tampa, and galloped Musket Man himself Friday morning.
"When I galloped him yesterday I said, 'Whoa, this is a long stretch!' " Ryan said. "I thought it'd really suit him."
Ryan dismisses any concerns about distance limitations in Musket Man's pedigree. By Yonaguska and out of a Fortunate Prospect mare, Musket Man is not classically bred.
"Everyone talks about that, but he'll go as far as you want," said Ryan.
That belief was echoed by Eibar Coa, who rode Musket Man for the first time Saturday.
"No doubt - he'll make it," Coa said of the Kentucky Derby's 1 1/4 miles.
Musket Man broke fourth, and settled into a midpack spot around the first turn and down the backstretch, with Coa saving some ground from post 7. Meanwhile, Perfect Song set a strong pace, 23.84 seconds to the first quarter, and 47.67 for the opening half. His Greatness tracked, and Giant Oak, asked to stay close at the start by jockey Shaun Bridgmohan, was inside in fourth. Musket Man moved strongly around the far turn, beating Giant Oak to a spot at the top of the stretch. Giant Oak swung wide from the fence for his run, and though finishing well, couldn't gain on the winner.
"He's got a lot of ability, but he's still learning," said Bridgmohan.
What onlookers learned here Saturday, however, is that Musket Man might be a pretty serious horse.