STICKNEY, IL -- Hawthorne is a gritty racetrack in a gritty town. Surrounded by industry and factory buildings rising up against a smoggy sky, the old oval lies tenaciously compacted into 136 acres on the edge of the city. Chicago's blue-collar side -- hulking metal of the shipping yards and acres upon acres of twisted wire fencing -- forms the backdrop for a circuit whose horsemen are equally proletarian. Training and racing here is more a livelihood than a ticket to superstardom; some of the horses are good, but few are great.
When Illinois Derby season comes around, the out-of-state shippers roll in to collect the money. This year's edition is no exception -- converging from all points across the nation, 14 contenders who will line up for Saturday's 55th running of the $500,000 Kentucky Derby prep last made starts in New York, Maryland, Texas, Arkansas, Florida, and -- of course -- Illinois.
It is thought to be the largest Illinois Derby field in history, one " bursting at the seams as the connections of 3-year-olds with even a hint of ability scramble for last-second graded earnings that might secure a [Kentucky] Derby berth," as Marcus Hersh put it in the Daily Racing Form. Many of the runners are unproven, but this is the magnetic draw that brings them to the 1 1/8-mile event: win here, and Kentucky could be next.
Shippers have always done better than local horses in the Illinois Derby. Prestigious runners connected to the race like dual classic winner War Emblem, who took the 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes after his Illinois Derby score, 2003 winner Ten Most Wanted, 2004 victor Pollard's Vision, 2005 winner Greely's Galaxy, 2006 winner Sweetnorthernsaint, Recapturetheglory in 2008 and Musket Man in 2009 all came in from other locales to claim the victor's share of the purse ($300,000 this year) before continuing on to successful stakes careers in more glamorous locations.
Heading the charge of out-of-state runners for this edition is 4-1 morning-line favorite Currency Swap, who flew to Lexington, Ky. from Florida and then traveled by horse van to the Chicagoland area on Tuesday. The lightly-raced son of High Cotton has just three starts under his girth -- most recent being a distant second to Wood Memorial favorite Gemologist in a March 16 one-mile allowance over an off track at Gulfstream Park. But that was his first start off a seven-month layup after undergoing surgery on an ankle chip, and last year he won the Hopeful Stakes (Saratoga's premiere event for 2-year-olds) off his maiden score, giving trainer Terri Pompay her first Grade 1 victory.
"We know the 3-year-old year is a long year and we started out behind, but we have plenty of races ahead with this horse," said Pompay, who could look to become the first female in history to saddle a
Kentucky Derby winner if her blaze-faced colt runs well this weekend. "My dream is to go to the Derby, but I want to go to the Derby with a horse I think has a really good shot. I'd love to be able to win the Illinois Derby and have that option, and if he won there and the owners said 'Let's go!' I'd love to give Kentucky a try. He's proved to me he's a real special horse and I'm hoping he runs a terrific race on Saturday."
Questions abound for this packed field of contenders. Will Currency Swap return to his stakes-winning form? Will Pretension, the 5-1 third choice on the morning line, rebound from a disappointing fifth in the Gotham? Will Z Rockstar, 10-1 on the morning line but moving forward off a solid Oaklawn allowance win, continue to improve? Will Our Entourage, the 9-2 second choice for trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Mike Repole, finally successfully transfer his form from grass to dirt?
"I just thought this horse deserves a chance to try the 3-year-old races on the dirt," Repole remarked Wednesday afternoon. "The past three works he's been in company with El Padrino, Windsurfer, and Stay Thirsty. Every time he stays with them and works the same time. Every time he's been doing it as easy as the other horse and the gallop out is the same. Do I think he's a better turf horse? Yes. Do I think he's a turf horse that can dirt [sic]? Absolutely."
Only two horses in the current field (also-eligibles excluded) have previous starts over this track -- 30-1 shots Frankie Is Rock and Fastestwhogetspaid. Just Frankie Is Rock raced here last time out, finishing third by 3 ¾ lengths in a 1 1/8-mile $34,000 allowance event against older horses on March 21. He hasn't won in five starts since breaking his maiden by half a length here on Oct. 29 last year, but after Hero of Order's score in the $1 million Louisiana Derby last weekend at odds of 109-1 well, at this time of year, everyone wants to take a shot.
"Hawthorne is my home track, we're pretty much Chicago-based, and we have the horse now where we can go to the next level, hopefully," said trainer Rodolfo "Rudy" Aguilar. "It looks like the horse will like the distance and we're pretty much excited about what we see in him. Hopefully everything goes good for the Derby."
Aguilar is Chicago-based, with a string of about 14 runners. He's been everything on the racetrack -- farm worker, hotwalker, groom, exercise rider, jockey, foreman. Training horses for almost 12 years now, he came all the way from the bottom of the ladder.
"Right now I'm looking for the big horse," he said. "Right now, we're dreaming."
Claire Novak is an Eclipse Award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.