A Cast from all Corners for the Illinois Derby
By Paul Mazur of ChicagoNow
Saturday afternoon, the $400,000 Grade 3 Illinois Derby, which serves as the richest dirt race in Chicago, will be run for the 58th time. Prior to 2001, the Illinois Derby, which served as a "B" Derby, was run in May at Sportsman's Park and lured horses who typically found the Kentucky Derby too far or too challenging. In 2001, the Illinois Derby moved to the first week of April and became a Kentucky Derby prep race. The following year, War Emblem (2002) won the Illinois Derby and later won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Haskell Invitational. With the closing of Sportsman's Park (just north of Hawthorne), the race moved to Hawthorne in 2003. Past winners include Ten Most Wanted (2003) who won the G1 Travers, and Sweetnorthernsaint (2006) and Musket Man (2009) both of whom cracked the trifecta in at least one of the Triple Crown races. In 2013, the race became an exiled Kentucky Derby prep when Churchill Downs left the race off its list of qualifying points races. The race then moved two weeks forward and now functions as a prep race for the Preakness. In 2013, Departing later won two Grade Two races in the summer following his Illinois Derby victory.
Chicago-based television station WGN will televise the Illinois Derby and the Sixty Sails in a program to air a one-hour broadcast starting at 5:00 p.m. CT. Beyond Chicago, WGN offers a free streaming platform. Hawthorne's simulcast feed is also free to watch on phones and tablets using the Horse Races NOW mobile app.
Morning line odds for these races were not available at original publish time. This race is scheduled for Saturday, April 18.
Hawthorne Race Course -- Race 9 -- G3 Illinois Derby -- 1 1/8 miles on dirt -- post time 5:40 p.m. CT
What to do with potential morning line favorite CROSS THE LINE?
As Southern California trainers go, when Hollendorfer ships one out of town it's worth paying attention. (We know he has Shared Belief.) And the horse appeared to bounce out of the Santa Anita Derby with a strong post-race work. However, he's been nine furlongs twice. On a closer-friendly Golden Gate Fields synthetic he was second, on Santa Anita dirt he was fifth behind Dortmund. The nine-furlong pedigree suggests that maybe he's a horse being tried beyond his distance ceiling.
This space will instead look to PHENOMENAL PHOENIX in this event. He's made six career starts, but three were on wet tracks (a third and two off-the-board finishes) and three were on dry tracks (two firsts and a second). Nominated at the eleventh hour, this Luis Quinonez/Donnie Von Hemel jockey/trainer production cleared the first level allowance last out. The price should be honest on him, as bettors will see his loss in the Southwest Stakes and think he's out of his league in this event. But that came on a wet track, and perhaps he's a horse who likes it dry and fast.
Like CROSS THE LINE there's a post-race maintenance work at Oaklawn. Bob Baffert and Mike Pegram - as trainer and owner, respectively - came to Hawthorne last year with heavy favorite Midnight Hawk, who was beaten on the line by Dynamic Impact. That team gets Martin Garcia to take off a day of mounts at Santa Anita and ride WHISKEY TICKET in the Illinois Derby.
A winner at first asking going a two-turn mile, he should have the breeding to handle ten panels based on the Ghostzapper-Awesome Again sire line. And he showed fight in the lane, something useful if he's on the engine with stretchout speed LEWYS VAPORIZER. You wonder if he can handle winners - and he's taking a step up in class to this Grade Three - with the same ease he handled maidens. He's more of a defensive use in this spot, as is CROSS THE LINE. Second two back in the El Camino Real Derby, he was last seen chasing Dortmund around in the Santa Anita Derby. Dortmund ran that field off its hooves in the Santa Anita Derby, and there's no Dortmund here.
There are ascending speed figures, but the pedigree of being by Line of David out of a Mr. Greeley mare doesn't wow for me for nine panels. Nor does a horse who closed at Golden Gate and got out-closed by Metaboss. The Baze/Hollendorfer team do excellent work at Golden Gate in Northern California, but this ain't NorCal. Despite the negative points he is a horse to defensively use as this Illinois Derby isn't all that strong and he does match the class of others.
#8 PHENOMENAL PHOENIX
#6 WHISKEY TICKET
#3 CROSS THE LINE
Longshot: Let's root for the home team in this space with a horse that has made his last two starts at Oaklawn and moves up to Hawthorne for the Grade Three Illinois Derby. Let's root for a rider with some familiarity with the Hawthorne oval, too.
Let's root for...#5 CONQUEST CURLINATE. CONQUEST CURLINATE hails from Conquest Stables, nom de course of the Ernie Semersky-owned operation based out of Highland Park - a suburb about a half-hour north of Chicago. They make the short hour drive to Hawthorne for the Grade Three Illinois Derby, and he's got more plus points than the other local, PRIVATE PROSPECT (who looks to have hit a wall at three). CONQUEST CURLINATE is nicely bred for the distance as one of the #curlinbabies out of a Peaks And Valleys mare - the broodmare sire won the Illinois Derby in the 90s.
As is standard procedure for Conquest Stables horses, Mark Casse trains. But Casse won this race last year at odds with Dynamic Impact. And Miguel Mena is aboard yet again. These humans blew up the toteboard in the 2012 Hawthorne Gold Cup and the 2014 Illinois Derby. Plus this closer, who gets pace to chase thanks to LEWYS VAPORIZER on the stretchout, may be sitting on a powder keg in the 2015 Illinois Derby.