04/05/2007 12:00AM

Cobalt Blue, Cowtown Cat seek to move up

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CHICAGO - For now, Cobalt Blue and Cowtown Cat are considered second-tier Kentucky Derby hopefuls - even within their own stables. Doug O'Neill, Cobalt Blue's trainer, already has Great Hunter, Notional, and Liquidity pointed in the general direction of the Kentucky Derby. Cowtown Cat resides in the barn of Todd Pletcher, whose army of 3-year-olds includes top prospects Circular Quay, Scat Daddy, and Any Given Saturday. But either horse could emerge as a more serious Triple Crown candidate after Saturday's Illinois Derby.

Cobalt Blue and Cowtown Cat both have the right trajectory for a breakthrough performance, each having scored his first stakes win last time out. They were among nine horses entered Thursday in the Illinois Derby, which has produced a Kentucky Derby winner, War Emblem, and a Kentucky Derby favorite, Sweetnorthernsaint, in recent seasons. The Grade 2, $500,000, 1 1/8-mile race is expected to be contested under conditions far from ideal. High temperatures Saturday are forecast to be in the mid-30s, with snow showers possible. Besides damping fan turnout, the weather could affect Hawthorne's main track, which can become slow and tiring when temperatures settle just above freezing.

Such an afternoon would present a new experience for likely favorite Cobalt Blue, who has raced exclusively in Southern California, winning 3 of 4 starts. Cobalt Blue, owned by Merv Griffin, got started early, winning his June debut, but wound up behind in terms of Triple Crown preparation when physical issues forced him out of training last fall.

"When you have to take a couple months off that time of year, it sets back your schedule for making a race like the [Kentucky] Derby," O'Neill.

Cobalt Blue got back in action winning a sprint allowance race Feb. 14, then cleared two hurdles at once - stakes competition and route racing - in a soft edition of the Grade 2 San Felipe on March 17. O'Neill is quite high on Cobalt Blue, describing him as a "big, beautiful chestnut" who should have no trouble adapting to longer-distance racing. Cobalt Blue won the San Felipe from the lead, but O'Neill pointed out he came from off the pace in his two other victories.

"I think he's versatile," he said.

Coming from off the pace is something Pletcher wondered if Cowtown Cat could do, but Cowtown Cat settled and finished well winning the Gotham Stakes on March 10 at Aqueduct.

"I didn't know about two turns, because I didn't know if he'd relax," said Pletcher, who won this race in 2001 with Distilled and in 2005 with Pollard's Vision.

Cowtown Cat, who will be ridden by Fernando Jara for the first time, finished sixth last fall in the Nashua, his stakes debut, impressively won a Gulfstream Park sprint allowance in his 3-year-old debut, and was a troubled third in the Grade 2 Swale before his rail-skimming win in the 1 1/16-mile Gotham.

Third choice Saturday should be Bold Start, a good second at 7 1/2 furlongs last out in the Grade 2 Hutcheson at Gulfstream. Bold Start finished third and sixth in a pair of two-turn races last season, and needs to race professionally to successfully stretch out Saturday.

"He's a big, strong, serious sort of horse, but he still needs to learn how to run," trainer Ken McPeek said.

Stakes winner Catman Running has easily won his three two-turn races after a lesser showing in his sprint debut. Love Dubai is a major X factor, having shipped for the race from England, where he has won three in a row on Polytrack. Reporting for Duty has a shot at a high placing for trainer Steve Asmussen, and improving Quite Acceptable won the local Illinois Derby prep.