Friday, April 21, 2017

Handicapper's Corner: Illinois Derby (G3)

Seven Line Up in Illinois Derby at Hawthorne

By: Nicolle Neulist, Blinkers-Off

Race 5: Illinois Derby (G3), three-year-olds, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 6:17pm CDT

After a one-year hiatus, the Illinois Derby returns to Hawthorne for its 59th running on Saturday, April 21.  Graded since the advent of American graded stakes in 1973, it has been a Grade 3 for most of its history, though it did carry a Grade 2 from 1997 through 2009.  

The race has produced one Classic winner: War Emblem (2002), who won the Illinois Derby for local trainer Frank Springer.  Subsequently purchased by The Thoroughbred Corporation and sent to Bob Baffert, he went on to win the Kentucky Derby (G1), Preakness (G1), and Haskell (G1).  

Another of its most eminent winners came earlier in its history.  In addition to winning the Illinois Derby at Aurora Downs, Mata Hari (1934) also beat her own sex on the Chicago circuit: in the Arlington Lassie Stakes at two and the Illinois Oaks at three.  She also beat males in Kentucky, winning both the Breeders' Futurity and the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at age two.

On the breeding side, the true star to emerge from the Illinois Derby was Smarten (1979).  Smarten produced Canadian champion sophomore filly Classy 'n Smart -- who herself produced both leading sire Smart Strike and Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1) winner Dance Smartly.

This year's Illinois Derby drew a field of seven to contest for a $250,000 purse.  The field slants toward emerging sophomores: none of the seven are graded stakes winners yet, only John Battaglia Memorial It’s Your Nickel has won in stakes company yet.

The only graded stakes placed horse in the field is Hedge Fund, from the barn of Todd Pletcher.  Todd Pletcher knows how to win this race; he has four victories in it already.  As for Hedge Fund, he finished third in a race that has graded out well so far: the Sunland Derby (G3).  Winner Hence has not since race, but second-place Conquest Mo Money finished second in the Arkansas Derby (G1) last weekend, and fourth-place Irap upset the Blue Grass (G2) two weeks back.  Hedge Fund set the pace in the Sunland Derby, a pace as hot as the burning New Mexico sun.  If he does not repeat that here, he should be tough.  And, there's no reason he has to repeat that.  Hedge Fund graduated just off the pace two back at Gulfstream, and could use that again.  As long as he settles off the pace (most likely set by Stand and Cheer, though St. Louie Guy could do it, too), he could be tough.

That said, Hedge Fund may not be sufficiently profitable to merit the risk.  And, there is one horse with enough upside to appeal for the upset: Multiplier.  Multiplier comes in off a maiden win at Fair Grounds last out, in the third start of his career.  He has progressed from start to start.  And, though he is a closer in a race that does not appear likely to fall apart?  Multiplier was able to get moving early enough to close into a softer pace last time out.  That matters -- he has tables to turn on Hollywood Handsome, but the time they faced each other the track was sloppy.  It stands to be dry in the Illinois Derby.  And, though Hollywood Handsome ran on for fourth in the Louisiana Derby (G2) last out, he got some rabbit-inspired fireworks that will not happen at Hawthorne.

Though this will be a class test for Multiplier, his first start against winners, trainer Brendan Walsh knows what he is doing.  After all, he has a 19% win rate with last out maiden winners, a 17% strike rate in graded stakes -- and, a positive ROI in both situations.  The biggest question is whether Multiplier will take to nine furlongs, as his dam is a Trippi mare who was herself a sprinter, and whose other progeny preferred going one turn.  But, he should be the price to bet he can.

Mr. Misunderstood comes into the Illinois Derby on a three-win streak, and he has progressed in each of those starts.  Though that streak started in claiming company at Fair Grounds, the next two wins both came against allowance-optional company over that same oval.  Surface, however, explains why this will be a class test for Mr. Misunderstood: two of his Fair Grounds victories came over turf, and the one win over dirt came in a wash-off over the slop.  But, like Multiplier, Mr. Misunderstood has shown that even though he is a closer, he does not need a fiery pace to kick on and be a factor late.  Finally, the trainer inspires confidence.  Brad Cox wins with shippers at a 24% rate -- in short, he doesn't just send his horses for giggles.  If he thinks Mr. Misunderstood is rounding into good enough form to try the Illinois Derby, that opinion carries weight.

#1 Multiplier
#2 Hedge Fund
#6 Mr. Misunderstood

Longshot:  Local trainer Scott Becker sends a pair here, both of whom have both Hawthorne form and form over some tougher winter circuits like Fair Grounds and Oaklawn.  

St. Louie Guy romped earlier this month at Hawthorne going two turns, but against far easier foes.  His classy form comes at one turn, and his pedigree screams it, too.  

On the other hand, #4 Stand and Cheer stands a better chance of getting a mile and an eighth here.  The first time he tried two turns, in a maiden special weight at Hawthorne last fall, he won easily.  In his last two starts, he faced one-other-than company at Fair Grounds and Oaklawn.  He rounded out the exacta in both after setting the early pace.  He may well set the pace here: Hedge Fund is probably better stalking, and St. Louie Guy rated while routing last out.  Still, Stand and Cheer is not one-way speed; he won his maiden race from a stalking spot, and had some solid underneath finishes off the pace last year as well.  With a pedigree a bit more suited for distance than his stablemate's, Stand and Cheer is the local longshot to use on your tickets.

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