04/05/2005 11:00PM

Derby a drop in class for Monarch Lane

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STICKNEY, Ill. - When he starts Saturday in the Illinois Derby, Monarch Lane will be moving from a loss in an entry-level allowance race into a Grade 2 stakes.

Feel free to call it a serious class drop.

Monarch Lane finished third in that allowance race, run at one mile on Feb. 26 at Gulfstream Park, but ahead of him were Sun King, who won by almost six, and Survivalist, who beat Monarch Lane by 2 3/4 lengths. Sun King moved on to a measured win in the Tampa Derby and is regarded by many as the leading 3-year-old in the country, while Survivalist won the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct in his next start.

No horse of such obvious ability awaits here at Hawthorne, where Monarch Lane will have eight rivals in the $500,000 Illinois Derby.

"We basically ran in a Grade 2 allowance - maybe a Grade 1 - there at Gulfstream," trainer Todd Pletcher said Wednesday from Keeneland, where Monarch Lane has been based for about a week since shipping north from Florida. "We felt we weren't going to run in a race any tougher than that, so we shopped around for the right stakes spot."

The Illinois Derby was an obvious alternative, Pletcher said. The timing of the race fit Monarch Lane's schedule, and none of the heavy hitters in the division is coming to the race. Moreover, Pletcher and Monarch Lane's owner, David Moore's Edgewood Farm, won the race last year with Pollard's Vision.

Pollard's Vision had done more at the same point in his career than Monarch Lane, who won his debut Jan. 16 at Gulfstream in his only start before the monster allowance race. Still, this year's local derby field is dominated by unproven horses, with Magna Graduate, most recently fourth in the March 26 Lane's End Stakes, the lone open-stakes winner in the race.

"A lot of 3-year-olds are going to run for more money this time of year than they'll ever get a chance to run for again," said trainer Bill Mott, who is sending Rikman, a former maiden claimer, from New York for the race.

Rikman was left behind with the New York string over the winter while Mott took much of his stable to south Florida. But Rikman is ahead of Monarch Lane, at least in terms of accomplishment, because he won an entry-level allowance race in his last start. But there were no Sun Kings, no Survivalists in that race.

The other horses entered Tuesday in the derby were Greeley's Galaxy, Unbridled Energy, Medigating, Win Me Over, Daddy Joe, and Kansas City Boy.

Blinkers back on Santana Strings

While Rikman figures to be the fourth or fifth choice in the Illinois Derby, Mott might have the favorite for the $125,000 Lost Code, one of two undercard stakes on an excellent 10-race program.

The Lost Code is for 3-year-old male sprinters. Its female counterpart is the $125,000 Meafara, which also drew a strong field.

Around the Cape finished second in the March 5 Swale Stakes to the fastest 3-year-old sprinter in the country, Lost in the Fog, and though he was beaten almost five lengths that day, Around the Cape turned in a solid effort. More than five lengths behind him, in fourth place, came Santana Strings, who appeared to have the best chance to upset Lost in the Fog, but regressed off his second-place finish in the Sunshine Millions Dash.

"Like an idiot, I took his blinkers off," said trainer Steve Asmussen, blaming himself for Santana Strings's showing. "He'd been a little nervous in the gate, and I thought that might help, but it didn't work."

Santana Strings, who won over the Hawthorne track last fall, will race in blinkers again Saturday, and should he return to his best form, he can challenge Around the Cape in the Lost Code. A pair of Hugh Robertson-trained horses, Smoke Smoke Smoke and Three Hour Nap, and the Illinois-bred Bold Lion also could do well.

Asmussen ships in Megascape for the Meafara, which like the Lost Code drew a field of nine. Megascape has been subpar in her last two starts, but Asmussen predicts a turnaround Saturday. Megascape will need one to beat the likes of Amazing Buy, a multiple stakes winner in from New York, and the Pletcher-trained Portsea, who will force what should be a hot pace in the six-furlong Meafara.

Overdue victory for Coach Jimi Lee

Coach Jimi Lee bounced back from a disappointing winter in Florida with a three-length victory over the talented sprinter Silver Bid in a high-end allowance race here Tuesday. Going directly to the lead from post 1, Coach Jimi Lee put away his pace rivals coming off the turn, and passed six furlongs in 1:09.94 on the way to a 6 1/2-furlong clocking of 1:16.74, fast times on a fairly dull racing strip.

Coach Jimi Lee had finished sixth, 12th, and fifth in his three races over the winter.

"He wasn't happy," said trainer Jim DiVito. "I couldn't put my finger on it, but he's a better horse than he'd been showing. I think physically he looks much better now. He's got more color to him."

The next start for Coach Jimi Lee has yet to be determined, DiVito said.

As the stable turns

Another episode in the Frank Calabrese-Wayne Catalano drama was to have commenced at Hawthorne this week, when Catalano was to begin training the bulk of Calabrese's stable. Calabrese pulled his horses from Catalano over the winter at Fair Grounds and dispersed them to an array of trainers, but he and Catalano will be fully reunited for another run at the Arlington meet, which begins May 13.

Catalano said, however, that he continues to operate a public stable. One of his horses, Injustice, breezed last weekend, and is on track for a start in the Sixty Sails Handicap here.

* The Friday feature, race 8, is an entry-level route allowance for Illinois-bred fillies and mares.