04/07/2007 12:00AM

Easy score for Cowtown Cat


STICKNEY, Ill. - Cowtown Cat is nothing if not versatile, and with a front-running win in the 50th running of the Illinois Derby on Saturday at blustery Hawthorne Race Course, he almost certainly earned a berth in next month's Kentucky Derby.

It's not that being on the lead is something brand new for Cowtown Cat: When he won a maiden race late last summer at Belmont, he contested the pace through a half-mile in 45 seconds and change. But Saturday, Cowtown Cat showed how much he has learned, rating beautifully for Hawthorne first-timer Fernando Jara and winning the Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby by 2 1/4 lengths over late-running Reporting for Duty. Bold Start, who tracked the leader while bottled up on the inside, finished third, almost four lengths clear of Sacrifice Bunt. Even-money favorite Cobalt Blue checked in seventh, beaten about 18 lengths, and never was a factor. Cowtown Cat, who won his second consecutive graded stakes, paid $9 to win, and was timed in 1:51.21 for 1 1/8 miles over a track producing moderate final times.

No way the Illinois Derby was going to be a fast race, not when all the potential speed horses failed to try for the front end.

"We didn't really expect that, but we knew it was a possibility," said Seth Benzel, the assistant to trainer Todd Pletcher who saddled Cowtown Cat.

Cowtown Cat and Jara backed up the pace, setting fractions of 24.85 seconds for the opening quarter-mile and 49.42 for the half. Catman Running, who was agitated while walking Hawthorne's indoor paddock before the race, pressed the pace down the backstretch, and drew abreast of Cowtown Cat on the far turn. But Jara continued sitting chilly, his mount content to wait for his cue.

"He was very relaxed the whole time," said Jara. "I just let him do what he wanted to do. He was always very comfortable."

Cowtown Cat opened a clear lead in upper stretch, and never appeared to be in any danger. Bold Start had left the rail at the quarter pole, tipping several paths deep for the stretch run, while Reporting for Duty and jockey Chris Emigh rallied into the inside spot Bold Start had vacated.

Turning for home, Emigh said, he thought he would catch Cowtown Cat and Jara, "but he had too much horse left."

Benzel obviously deferred to Pletcher in terms of Cowtown Cat's next start, but the Kentucky Derby would seem to be an obvious option for an improving 3-year-old.

Jockey Victor Espinoza said California invader Cobalt Blue never gave him a good feeling Saturday. "As soon as he ran out of the gate he started slipping around," he said.

Lost Code: Caruso wins his 2007 debut

Caruso, one of the best Illinois-bred 2-year-olds last season, made a successful 3-year-old debut Saturday, winning the $47,925 Lost Code Stakes by 1 3/4 lengths over Thatsalotofbull. Caruso paid $4.80 to win as the favorite, and was timed in 1:10.98 for six furlongs. Piratesonthelake finished third.

Caruso, whose only loss last year came in a two-turn race, broke a touch slowly from post 1, but recovered to make the lead before the half-mile pole. Piratesonthelake took a brief lead in midstretch, but Caruso battled back and won going away.

Meafara: Orange Crush no longer a maiden

Orange Crush was an 11-race maiden Saturday morning. Saturday afternoon, she became a stakes winner. Under a rail-skimming ride from jockey Terry Thompson, Orange Crush ($11) caught pacesetting Rich N Clever in the final half-furlong and pulled away to a half-length victory in the $47,700 Meafara Stakes. Orange Crush was timed in 1:12.62 for six furlongs. Missing Treasure closed for third.