Ill. Derby's Kentucky ties not as likely as S. Anita's

With Eurosilver sick, Wimbledon now favorite heading into tuneup

March 29, 2004|By Neil Milbert | Neil Milbert,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

In this spring of our discontent with the credentials of the Triple Crown candidates, might there be another War Emblem lurking in Saturday's Grade II Illinois Derby at Hawthorne Race Course? At this time two years ago, War Emblem was a virtually unknown colt and the Illinois Derby was an unsung Triple Crown prep race.

Then, War Emblem outran the highly touted Repent and won the Illinois Derby. Then, a few days after the race, The Thoroughbred Corp., headed by the late Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman, bought a 90 percent interest in War Emblem from the late Russell Reineman and gave him to Bob Baffert to train. And then, War Emblem won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Last year's Illinois Derby winner, Ten Most Wanted, hurt his back leaving the starting gate in the Kentucky Derby and finished up the track. But he came back to run second in the Belmont and win the $1 million Travers to make another case that the Illinois Derby has indeed become a significant Triple Crown prep race.

However, the probable and possible lists for Saturday's running suggest otherwise. None of the top 10 horses in this week's poll is on the lists.

Saturday's Grade I Santa Anita Derby looks like a much better place to search for the potential winner of a Triple Crown race. Although the last Santa Anita Derby winner to win the Kentucky Derby was Sunday Silence in 1989, the race has continued to be a leading indicator of which candidates are the cream of the crop.

The probable favorite is Wimbledon, who moved to the top of the poll from the No. 2 spot in the wake of the news that a neck infection would prevent last week's No. 1 candidate, Eurosilver, from running in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 10.

Neither trainer Nick Zito nor Mohammed Moubarak, racing manager for Eurosilver's owner/breeder Buckram Oak Farm, would speculate on a possible alternate route to the Kentucky Derby. Said Zito: "The Blue Grass is out of the question. This is a day-to-day thing."

Wimbledon, meanwhile, will be trying to prove his victory in the Grade II Louisiana Derby was no fluke. An encore performance in the Santa Anita Derby would give Baffert two viable candidates in the trainer's quest for his fourth Kentucky Derby triumph in eight years. The other half of Baffert's 1-2 punch is Preachinatthebar, coming off an upset victory by a nose in the Grade II San Felipe and scheduled to make his next start in the Blue Grass.

The absence of Eurosilver from the Blue Grass has prompted trainer Patrick Biancone to think twice about running Lion Heart in the Santa Anita Derby. Biancone now is considering the Blue Grass for the winner of last year's Grade I Hollywood Futurity. He will discuss the options with owners Michael Tabor and Derek Smith after the colt works 5 furlongs today.

Even if Lion Heart defects, Wimbledon still figures to be tested at Santa Anita, thanks to San Felipe runner-up St. Averil, Imperialism, Rock Hard Ten and Quintons Gold Rush.

In the Illinois Derby, the unheralded but well-traveled stretch-runner Pan American bears watching. He comes to Hawthorne after having raced at Emerald Downs, Churchill Downs, the Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park and last time out at Oaklawn he won an allowance race by 10 lengths after going from eight lengths behind to four in front in a quarter of a mile.

Among the other War Emblem wannabees on the Illinois Derby probable list are Grade III El Camino Real Derby winner Kilgowan; Song of the Sword, a winner of three straight at Aqueduct; and Tiger Hunt, who'll have Pat Day in the saddle when he starts for the first time since finishing fourth in last October's Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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