04/04/2008 11:00PM

Denis of Cork favored to punch Derby ticket

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STICKNEY, Ill. - The closest David Carroll ever came to winning the Kentucky Derby was in 1989, when Easy Goer finished 2 1/2 lengths behind Sunday Silence. Carroll's name didn't appear on the program; the young Irishman toiled behind the scenes as Easy Goer's exercise rider.

Nineteen years later, Carroll is making a serious bid to make his first Derby as a head trainer, and Denis of Cork can get him there if he runs to form in the Illinois Derby on Saturday at Hawthorne. Denis of Cork was one of seven horses entered in the 1 1/8-mile race, which offers $500,000 worth of Grade 2 earnings.

Accumulating graded stakes money sits squarely on the to-do list for Denis of Cork. Unbeaten in three races, Denis of Cork has $150,000 in graded earnings from his win in the Southwest at Oaklawn on Feb. 18. He will need more in his final Derby prep to be assured a spot in the Derby itself, restricted to the 20 horses with the highest graded stakes earnings.

"Everything needs to go right for us Saturday," said the Louisville-based Carroll, who trains Denis of Cork for William and Suzanne Warren. "That's where the most pressure is."

Denis of Cork is on his way to becoming the best horse Carroll has trained. Carroll, who still exercises much of his own stock in the morning, and operates a sharp, hands-on operation, brought the colt along slowly, giving him almost two months between an impressive seven-furlong debut win last fall at Churchill and an entry-level allowance victory - his two-turn debut - in the mud Jan. 19 at Fair Grounds.

Denis of Cork does not like a wet track, and things were against him in New Orleans, but he gutted out a narrow win, went to Oaklawn, and delivered the goods in the Feb. 18 Southwest, a race that has produced a slew of next-out winners.

"I think he's feeling better now than he was for the Southwest," said Carroll, who believes Denis of Cork takes after his grandsire Unbridled, a Derby winner, more than sire Harlan's Holiday.

Denis of Cork rallied from 18 lengths behind at Oaklawn, but the Southwest pace was insanely fast, and Denis of Cork may have more tactical route speed than people realize. Under new rider Julien Leparoux (previous jock Robby Albarado had earlier committed to ride Country Star in the Grade 1 Ashland on Saturday), Denis of Cork should sit fairly close to a moderate pace.

On paper, the likely pacesetter is Golden Spikes, a fading fifth last out in the Fountain of Youth.

"He doesn't have to be on the lead, but I don't see a lot of speed," trainer Marty Wolfson said.

Instill, who won a two-turn Illinois-bred stakes here last fall, could apply modest early pressure. So might potentially live longshot Recapturetheglory, another Hawthorne winner who was an improving horse in the fall and should move forward in his second start of the year.

Bill Mott, who won the 1999 Illinois Derby, sends in Z Humor, while Todd Pletcher, who won this race for the third time when Cowtown Cat captured the 2007 edition, ships in Atoned. Z Humor was a flat fifth in the Sam Davis at Tampa, his 3-year-old debut, but ran better when fourth in the Fountain of Youth. Atoned, the likely second choice Saturday, has finished second four times in a row, taking tough losses in the Remsen to end a busy

2-year-old season, and in the March 19 Tampa Bay Derby, his 2008 debut.

Real Appeal has appeal as an exacta partner for Denis of Cork. Winner of a stakes last out at Sam Houston in his first start this season, Real Appeal showed some quality last year, and may be ready to do more Saturday.

The Illinois Derby, race 7, is preceded by two lesser stakes. Coach Jimi Lee is set to make his 8-year-old debut against Mighty Rule and High Expectations in the $75,000 Illinois Owners Stakes (race 5), while the Meafara (race 6) could come down to J Z Warrior and Miss Red Delicious.