03/31/2008 11:00PM

Denis of Cork has to reassert himself

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STICKNEY, Ill. - It is hard to be the Kentucky Derby prospect of the moment when you don't race during an entire month.

Denis of Cork had pundits yapping when he sharply won the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park, but come on, that was, like, a lifetime ago. Since the Southwest's running Feb. 18, we have seen Pyro cement his top-end status in the Louisiana Derby, War Pass flop at Tampa Bay Downs, and most recently, Florida Derby winner Big Brown come screaming onto the scene.

Denis of Who?

Overshadowed he may have been lately, but this is the same Denis of Cork who has yet to taste defeat in three starts. He will back in action - if not exactly back in the national spotlight, with the Wood in New York and the Santa Anita Derby in California the same afternoon - when he starts Saturday at Hawthorne in Chicago's biggest race until the Arlington Million, the $500,000 Illinois Derby.

Denis of Cork was one of seven entered in the Illinois Derby, a Grade 2 at 1 1/8 miles. Atoned, beaten a neck in the Tampa Bay Derby, almost certainly will be the second choice, with Z Humor and Golden Spikes the likely third and fourth betting favorites. Class-rising Real Appeal comes off a win, while Recapturetheglory and Instill both won two-turn dirt races here last fall.

The path to this race has not been straight for Denis of Cork, a Harlan's Holiday colt owned by William and Suzanne Warren, and trained by David Carroll. First, Denis of Cork had been expected to move from the Southwest onto the next Oaklawn stakes, the Rebel. Then, speed-figure zealots among his connections decided that Denis of Cork, fresh off his Southwest corker, needed only one final start to hit his peak on Kentucky Derby Day. The initial choice was the Wood, but, finally, Hawthorne became the choice.

Carroll, based at Churchill Downs, has only to ship his horse about six hours, rather than cross-country for the race. He will do so after Denis of Cork trains Thursday at Churchill; after arriving Thursday afternoon, Denis of Cork will exercise over the local surface Friday, and jog Saturday morning. Denis of Cork did his main work for this start last Sunday at Churchill, zipping five furlongs in 59.60 seconds.

On paper, Denis of Cork should win, but what Carroll wants is a high placing and the earnings that come with it, in order to ensure that Denis of Cork has sufficient graded stakes money to get into an oversubscribed Kentucky Derby field.

"I could see a scenario there where one horse gets loose on the lead or something, but I can't worry about that," Carroll said. "What he needs to do is leave there with a big check."