Illinois Derby scouting report

Illinois Derby
Saturday, April 5, Hawthorne

The Low-Down: The undefeated DENIS OF CORK legitimized himself as a Triple Crown caliber horse by winning the Southwest at Oaklawn in visually impressive fashion. It only seemed natural that he'd run back in the Rebel, but the connections decided it was best to give him just one more prep in advance of a Kentucky Derby run. Because they're based in the Midwest, trainer David Carroll thought better of potential travel to New York for the Wood Memorial in lieu of a run in the Illinois Derby. DENIS OF CORK is currently 22nd on the earnings list, and will need a good showing on Saturday to secure a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. In 2007, trainer Todd Pletcher had five legitimate starters in the Kentucky Derby. This year he's hoping that at least one steps up to the plate and proves worthy of a run at the roses. Pletcher has won three of the last seven Illinois Derbies, including last year's edition with Cowtown Cat, and he hopes Tampa Bay Derby runner-up ATONED can keep the hot streak going. Currently 30th on the graded stakes earnings list, he is in dire need of a win. A top 2-year-old, Z HUMOR has yet to assert himself during his sophomore season. After disappointing as the favorite in the Sam F. Davis at Tampa, he wheeled back just eight days later, finishing a creditable fourth in the Fountain of Youth. Trainer Bill Mott, who won the 1999 Illinois Derby with the upstart Vision and Verse, decided right there and then that the Illinois Derby would be the colt's next destination.

Our Eyes: As a daily public handicapper in Chicago, I'm subjected to the inconsistent weather this time of year, just like the horses. Hawthorne's main track can be a little quirky, and some horses simply don't like it; but Saturday's forecast calls for sunny skies and temperatures in the low 60s, which does ease concerns for the likely favorite, out-of-towner DENIS OF CORK. My Horseplayer PRO colleague Toby Turrell, who wintered in Louisiana, got to see quite a bit of DENIS OF CORK in recent weeks. He tells me that he's "rock solid and heading the right direction" and that he's "a very athletic horse who has put on some body of late, which will help him not miss any key beats." With only three starts under his belt, he certainly has some room for improvement, and the fact that he is developing physically is a good sign. The horse has already displayed talent, tenacity, and two-turn ability. In addition, each of his three wins has come at a different track. As a horseplayer, you have to like when a trainer has pointed to a particular race, especially one like Mott, who already has an Illinois Derby win on his resume. Z HUMOR may be ready to put it all together at just the right time. GOLDEN SPIKES is the wild card. A close second to Cool Coal Man in a second-level allowance at Gulfstream on Jan. 26, he returned to set the pace in the Fountain of Youth before finishing an even fifth behind the same rival. The pace was a contested one, and GOLDEN SPIKES was a bit rank. Trainer Marty Wolfson takes the blinkers off for this, which may help the horse relax and settle into a more comfortable stride early on.

The Bottom Line: The name of the game is finding value. DENIS OF CORK should be a defined favorite. He's the horse to beat, but the price will be short, and he doesn't have to win this. ATONED is headed in the right direction, and it's tough to argue with Pletcher's Illinois Derby success. Z HUMOR's recent form is nothing to write home about, but he's got a big chance to turn it around here. GOLDEN SPIKES is the sleeper. The removal of blinkers could signal maturity, and leading rider Timmy Thornton certainly knows his way around Hawthorne.

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