04/03/2010 12:00AM

American Lion restores image in Illinois Derby


STICKNEY, Ill. - The Lion finally roared.

American Lion was widely considered one of the most promising 3-year-olds as the calendar flipped to 2010, but lost luster when he finished third and fourth in his first two starts this year.

Third time was a charm.

Leading all the way under new pilot David Flores, American Lion shrugged off a serious stretch challenge from 6-5 favorite Yawanna Twist, and was drawing away as he posted a 2 3/4-length win in the on Saturday at Hawthorne Race Course.

Victory in the Grade 3, $500,000 stakes earned American Lion $291,000, surely ample graded earnings to land a slot in the Kentucky Derby. And that, barring misfortune, is where American Lion will make his next start, trainer Eoin Harty said after the race.

American Lion broke on top from the rail Saturday and outran Yawanna Twist to lead into the first turn. With Yawanna Twist pressing all the way, he and Flores set fractions of 24.89 and 49.32 seconds. That half-mile fraction was quite slow, considering the strong wind blowing with the horses down the backstretch. But that same wind whistled into the leaders as they turned for home, and it had Harty worried.

"The game plan was to make the lead till I saw the headwind," Harty said. "Then, I told David it was in his hands."

Yawanna Twist turned into the stretch head and head with American Lion, and stayed that way until the pair reached the eighth pole. But American Lion looked bigger and stronger before the race, and he simply finished better than Yawanna Twist in the first 1 1/8-mile start for both horses.

"The other horse just kept on going," said Edgar Prado, who rode Yawanna Twist for trainer Rick Dutrow.

Yawanna Twist finished 11 3/4 lengths in front of Backtalk, who was narrowly third over Turf Melody. Dave in Dixie, Boulder Creek, Stephen's Got Hope, and Game Ball completed the order of finish.

Before the three-eighths pole, third-choice Backtalk launched a rally from near the back of the field, but he flattened out in the stretch, probably negatively impacted by the slow pace.

"I was concerned when I saw the splits," trainer Tom Amoss said.

American Lion paid $8.60 to win, and was timed in 1:51.31 over a fast track still moist from morning rain. His final furlong in 13 seconds was solid, considering the powerful headwind.

After winning the Hollywood Preview in his final start at 2, American Lion was third in the Robert Lewis while contesting the pace, and Harty, feeling the Tiznow colt was unfocused, tried blinkers in the March 13 San Felipe. That didn't work either, with American Lion pulling too hard while being rated early in the race. Flores, who won the Hawthorne Gold Cup last fall on Awesome Gem, said he worked American Lion twice preparing for the Illinois Derby: The first work, in blinkers, displeased him, but the second, without a hood, was much better.

"He relaxed beautifully today," Flores said.

American Lion has talent, for sure, but he had things his own way Saturday at Hawthorne. The first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs will present a much sterner challenge.