03/29/2010 11:00PM

Backtalk flaunts speed for Illinois Derby

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STICKNEY, Ill. - Illinois sits in the middle of the country, after all, a natural spot for an East-meets-West showdown in Saturday's Illinois Derby. Four horses from the West Coast and three from the East Coast were entered in the race Tuesday. But the one to beat in the Grade 3, $500,000 Illinois Derby might be the lone Midwesterner, Backtalk.

The Illinois Derby lost Schoolyard Dreams to the Wood Memorial this week, but the East Coast-based Game Ball, Turf Melody, and Yawanna Twist are coming. Game Ball has only a Tampa Bay allowance-race win to his credit; Turf Melody won a two-turn stakes at Remington Park; Yawanna Twist finished second of 10 March 6 in the Gotham Stakes.

American Lion heads the California quartet (all making their dirt debut), joined by Boulder Creek, Dave in Dixie, and Stephen's Got Hope. American Lion won the Grade 3 Hollywood Prevue last Nov. 21, and in his two starts at 3 finished third in the Robert Lewis and fourth in the San Felipe. Dave in Dixie was second in the Lewis and sixth in the San Felipe. Boulder Creek was fourth in the Sham last out. Stephen's Got Hope, a maiden, was supplemented for $10,000.

Backtalk traveled by van from Fair Grounds to Hawthorne on Sunday, and trained here Tuesday morning. Backtalk showed class at 2, winning the Grade 2 Sanford Stakes at his peak, and made a successful 3-year-old debut Feb. 26 at Delta Downs, where he overcame difficult circumstances in the $75,000 Sportsman's Paradise to beat a decent colt, Royal Express.

At least as noteworthy as Backtalk's comeback win was his final Illinois Derby work last Thursday at Fair Grounds: Six furlongs in 1:09.60. That was easily the fastest six-furlong work of the winter in New Orleans, and would have been among the fastest six-furlong races of the Fair Grounds meeting. Cash Refund went a meet-best 1:09.13 winning the Duncan Kenner Stakes last Saturday.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Billy Pettingill, who has worked as a Fair Grounds clocker for more than 25 years. "I thought there was something wrong with my watch. The only thing I had anywhere near that was a horse called Apprentice for Billy Badgett, who worked in 1:10 flat."

The Apprentice work took place in 1993. A more typical high-end six-furlong Fair Grounds work would be something like 1:12. Pettingill said he got Backtalk in splits of 34.60 seconds for three furlongs, 46.60 for four furlongs, and 57.60 for five furlongs. Amazingly, he also timed Backtalk going out another furlong past the wire in 11.60.

"He was still galloping well when he came back to the half-mile pole," said Pettingill.

But the breeze left trainer Tom Amoss more worried than impressed.

"There's no question he did a lot in the work," Amoss said. "Although he hasn't shown any outward signs that would cause concern, that kind of thing often doesn't show up till a race. That can by a very dulling work."

Amoss said Backtalk worked so fast because two horses used as company broke off for the drill showing unexpected speed.

"He was supposed to be six or eight lengths behind," Amoss said. "It wound up being 20."

Backtalk, it should be noted, passed those workmates at the sixteenth pole. The jury's still out on whether that was a hint of things to come in Saturday's race - or whether Backtalk left his race back in New Orleans.