04/03/2007 12:00AM

Derby draws some unusual suspects

Email

CHICAGO - Saturday's Illinois Derby, which is expected to attract between nine and 12 horses when entries are taken Thursday, will have some of the usual suspects on this year's Triple Crown trail. Trainer Todd Pletcher is expected to send Cowtown Cat, who passed his first two-turn test winning the Gotham Stakes in New York. Doug O'Neill, Hawthorne racing officials said, plans to send two runners, the highly touted Cobalt Blue and little-known Family Talk. Steve Asmussen trained Family Talk until recent weeks, but Asmussen has his own Illinois Derby probable, Reporting for Duty.

There are probable starters for the Grade 2, 1 1/8-mile Illinois Derby from much more obscure corners - none more so than Love Dubai, who has won three straight on Polytrack, but never has raced outside England. Catman Running, another Illinois Derby horse, also has Polytrack credentials, but his two-race synthetic-surface win streak came at Turfway Park, and Catman Running need only ship from Lexington, Ky., on Friday to get here for Saturday's race. His trainer, Eric Reed, believes that the Illinois Derby will propel Catman Running into the Triple Crown.

"I'm convinced he's that kind of horse, because he can get the distance, plus he's got enough natural speed to be out of trouble," said Reed. "It's just a matter of qualifying, because he was late coming around. If he doesn't get enough [graded] earnings for the [Kentucky] Derby, we'd look to the Preakness."

Catman Running actually won his maiden at Hawthorne last fall - one reason Reed elected to start here rather than in some other 3-year-old stakes - after finishing seventh in a seven-furlong Keeneland maiden race last October. At Turfway, he won an entry-level allowance race by more than four lengths, then captured the $100,000 John Battaglia by almost two lengths on March 3.

"We beat Joe Got Even pretty easy there, and he came back and was third in the Lane's End," Reed said.

A casual racing fan might call Reed, a 25-year veteran, a smaller-time trainer - but in terms of sheer numbers, he is far from that. Based at Keeneland and his own Lexington training facility, the Mercury Equine Training Center, Reed currently has 110 horses in training, and he will run them anywhere, from Texas to the Atlantic Coast.

"We have three big vans that we bought, plus two drivers, so we're set up to go anywhere we want," he said.

Catman Running cost $65,000 at auction, but Reed often spends far less than that on young horses.

For much of his training career, "we did a lot more selling than racing," Reed said.

At first, Reed pinhooked yearlings at 2-year-old sales, but eventually he networked enough to sell many horses privately. "It used to be we'd sell this type of horse, but people I train for have decided they want to race more," he said.

Catman Running, a son of Tactical Cat, has had different riders in his four races so far, but Reed said Willie Martinez, aboard for the Battaglia win, has a return call Saturday.

The other Illinois Derby probables are Bold Start, Freesgood, and Quite Acceptable. Slews's Tizzy, Summer Doldrums, and UD Ghetto are considered possible for the race.

Pace edge to Photo Image, No Shame

Thursday's featured first race is for second-level allowance horses at 1o1/16 miles, and even a Chicago weekend warrior will have seen most of this six-horse field square off in the past.

Lace Castelli was favored to win the last Hawthorne race at this class level on March 15, but finished fourth - no surprise since Lace Castelli has a record of 3 wins in 49 starts. She and the other closers in the race should be troubled by a lack of early pace, and slow fractions should work in favor of Photo Image and No Shame.