04/06/2006 12:00AM

Former claimer has stuff to win Illinois Derby

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In two of the last three years, the winner of the Illinois Derby has come by way of California. Greeley's Galaxy won the race last year after taking an allowance at Santa Anita, and Ten Most Wanted won in 2003 after last running third in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate.

The exception over this three-year stretch was Pollard's Vision, the 2004 Illinois Derby winner, who trained in Florida over the winter but ran third in the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds in his race preceding the Illinois Derby.

As for this year's race, there are three quality California invaders in the field - Mister Triester, Cause to Believe, and Racketeer - suggesting another West Coast shipper may again be the winner. But to do so, they will have to beat Sweetnorthernsaint, a Northeastern shipper who has risen from the claiming ranks to become a Kentucky Derby prospect. He is my choice to win the Illinois Derby, for three reasons:

First, he is fast. He has earned three consecutive triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures, something that none of his opponents has managed to do once.

Secondly, he is battle tested in a top race. Racing March 18 in the Gotham Stakes - a contest that included the likes of Keyed Entry and Achilles of Troy - he finished third, beaten three-quarters of a length by upset winner Like Now.

Sweetnorthernsaint also managed this strong effort by rating successfully for the first time in his career. After a slow break from the outside post, he relaxed in the three path under jockey Kent Desormeaux and gradually made up ground on Like Now and second-place Keyed Entry.

These virtues are apparent to most handicappers, which will no doubt make Sweetnorthernsaint one of the Illinois Derby favorites. Despite all this, my guess is that he won't be the short number he should be.

That is the third reason why I like him - because he is a winter horse from the Northeast, and one who once raced for a tag. I think some will view him as phony and try to beat him. Additionally, he does not have the "sizzle" that comes with fancy bloodlines or well-known connections.

Sweetnorthernsaint is a gelding, but a fast one, and one who I believe can win the Illinois Derby. I like him on top, with Cause to Believe and Racketeer rounding out my top three.

Four who excel with juveniles

Get ready to start playing the babies. Keeneland carded a 2-year-old race going 4 1/2 furlongs on Friday's opening day card, and nine more are planned for the spring meet, including one for fillies scheduled for Sunday.

In preparation for playing these juvenile races, I've included a chart in this column that details the records and return on investment of trainers who have had at least two first-out juveniles win in spring Keeneland meets since 2000.

The repeated success of four trainers stand out: Steve Asmussen, D. Wayne Lukas, Todd Pletcher, and Ronny Werner. All have trained seven or more debut winners.

Interestingly, Lukas was 6 for 12 over this stretch with juvenile fillies making their debut, but 1 for 13 with males.

On the owner front, Bill Heiligbrodt, of Heiligbrodt Racing Stable, and Dogwood Stable have done extremely well with juveniles at Keeneland in recent years, Heiligbrodt with preciously bred runners and Dogwood Stable with yearling and 2-year-old purchases that were prepped in Aiken, S.C.

Dogwood, 4-3-0 with 11 first-out spring juveniles at Keeneland since 2000, has at least two talented prospects who could run at Keeneland. Sanibel Storm and Publican won divisions of the Aiken Trials, two-furlong trial races contested last month. Sanibel Storm, who won by open lengths and in fast time, is reportedly going to be trained by Graham Motion. Publican is expected to race for Pletcher.

Trainers

* Records of trainers starting first-out 2-year-olds during spring meets at Keeneland, 2000-2005.

TrainerDebut recordWin%In$%$2 ROI
S. Asmussen46-9-10-8.20.59$2.72
C. Deville15-2-2-1.13.332.91
B. Flint12-2-3-2.17.581.68
M. Hubley3-2-0-0.67.6713.07
D. Lukas25-7-2-5.28.561.70
K. McPeek20-2-4-3.10.450.99
T. Pletcher24-11-5-3.46.792.18
E. Reed23-2-1-5.09.352.23
D. Stewart3-2-0-0.67.676.47
R .Werner24-11-2-4.46.712.73