03/28/2002 12:00AM

Chicago Six leads a parade of returning champions

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If horseplayers at Sportsman's Park have a sense of deja vu about the Illinois Champions Day program, that is understandable. In four of the six races for statebreds, last year's winner remains eligible. And in something of an upset, all four are back.

Foremost among the returnees is Chicago Six in the Milwaukee Avenue Handicap. The others are Classic Appeal in the Chicagoland Handicap, Puny in the Governor's Lady Handicap, and Faccia Bella in the Peach of It Handicap.

One other 2001 champion, Meadow Champ, will run in the Chicagoland. The gray colt won the Land of Lincoln, for 3-year-olds, last year.

Illinois Champions Day, a tribute to the state breeding program, was known until several years ago as Red Letter Day. Highlights of the day will be televised on "2Day at the Races" on ESPN2 from 6 to 6:30 p.m. Eastern. The show will include full coverage of two Sportsman's races and the stretch drive of a third.

Repent to star in local derby

Track officials are excited about the possibility of the favorite for the Kentucky Derby having his final Derby prep at Sportsman's.

is expected to be an overwhelming favorite next Saturday in the $500,000 Illinois Derby, which is shaping up with a field of at least five 3-year-olds.

A convincing victory by Repent, combined with several other happenings in the final go-round of preps, could very well make the colt the Kentucky Derby favorite.

Jerry Bailey will be in to ride Repent in the 45th running of the 1 1/8-mile Illinois Derby. The opposition is expected to include Changeintheweather, winner of the Grey Breeders' Cup last fall at Woodbine; Peekskill, third in the Florida Derby; Publication, winner of the Arlington-Washington Futurity last fall; and War Emblem, winner of the Illinois Derby prep.

Part of the allure to winning the Illinois Derby is that a victory in any of the Triple Crown races is worth an additional $1 million bonus. By virtue of his wins in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and Louisiana Derby, Repent already is eligible for two other $1 million bonuses if he can win the Kentucky Derby.

Albarado back in town

The many Chicago-area fans of Robby Albarado will get to see the jockey here Saturday. Albarado, who just completed the Fair Grounds meet, is scheduled to ride in five of the Illinois Champions races.

Albarado, who rode regularly at Sportsman's in 1995 before going on to stardom at Arlington, Fair Grounds, and in Kentucky, will ride at Keeneland when its begins Friday.

Derby double

A "Derby Double" wager combining the Illinois Derby and Santa Anita Derby will be offered next Saturday at tracks and simulcast outlets throughout North America.

The wager has a $1 minimum and will be accepted through the Sportsman's hub. Scheduled post times are 5:17 p.m. Eastern for the Illinois Derby and 5:40 for the Santa Anita Derby. Both races will be televised live on ESPN on "Citgo Racing to the Kentucky Derby."

Emotional win for Ruffolo

The front-running victory last Sunday by McMahon in the $104,450 Sportsman's Park Breeders' Cup Handicap was an emotional one for Nate Ruffolo, who co-owns McMahon with trainer Michele Boyce.

Ruffolo's uncle Augie died five days before the race. Ruffolo wrote a note on a track program and placed it in his uncle's casket before the burial Saturday.

"My dad, Frank, is at the same cemetery," said Ruffolo. "He got me started with horses, and he was a horseplayer. He even died at the track. He had a heart attack one day after the last race and didn't even make it to the hospital.

"After my uncle's funeral, I went and saw my father and told him about Mac's race, so we had all kinds of help."

Juarez plays catch-up

Jockey Alfredo Juarez Jr. tightened the jockey race Monday by posting his second four-win day of the meet. Through Monday, Larry Sterling Jr. (18 wins), Juarez (17) and Randy Meier (14) had emerged as the meet's winningest riders.

In the trainer standings, Mike Reavis and Frank Kirby have separated themselves from their colleagues. Through Monday, Reavis had saddled 13 winners to Kirby's 11.

* A fund-raising buffet dinner for veteran trainer Roy Houghton will be held next Saturday after the races. The function will be just outside the Sportsman's gates at After the Races on Laramie Ave. Houghton has been hospitalized with a chest aneurysm since March 11.