04/06/2006 12:00AM

Four on the brink of joining division's elite


CHICAGO - The road to the Kentucky Derby winds through Chicago's southwest side on Saturday afternoon. Or does it?

This used to be the poor man's alternative to the Kentucky Derby, run a week after the race and used by its best participants as a springboard to later Triple Crown races. Now it has joined the glut of 3-year-old races lumped under the heading, Kentucky Derby Prep. But though Greeley's Galaxy in the 2005 Illinois Derby and Ten Most Wanted two years before scored flashy wins here, neither was a factor in the real Derby. The counterpoint is War Emblem, who romped when the race was still at defunct Sportsman's Park, then went on to take the first two legs of the 2002 Triple Crown.

What do we have this year? A good-sized field of 10, and four - - who have shown at least flashes of talent that put them within hailing distance of the division's elite.

A Grade 2 with a $500,000 purse, the Illinois Derby goes as race 7 on a 10-race card, and is part of an NBC broadcast beginning at 4 p.m. Central. Cause to Believe is the horse many feel has the best chance to make a dent in the Triple Crown. Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer and ridden by Russell Baze, Cause to Believe has traveled an unorthodox path for this era. He has raced, and raced some more - nine starts already - his career having begun last May and continued without interruption since.

"He hasn't been out at all," Hollendorfer said. "The timing of all his races came up so that he stayed on the path I wanted him to take."

Cause to Believe, already a six-time winner, won his maiden at 4 1/2 furlongs, but always has wanted to go farther. A slingshot closer in his higher-class sprints, Cause to Believe has won all three of his two-turn starts, and though he hasn't raced farther than 1 1/16 miles, Hollendorfer and Baze see Saturday's 1 1/18-mile distance as a plus.

"To me, the distance helps us," said Hollendorfer.

Sweetnorthernsaint, a strong front-end galloping type, beat up maidens and lower-class stakes horses in New York and Maryland this winter, but got his first real test March 18 in the Gotham Stakes, and though he was beaten for the first time on dirt, finishing third, he lost by less than a length after racing wide and, for the first time, from off the pace.

"I thought it was a great effort out of the 10-hole in his first time two turns," said Trombetta, who has given a return call to Kent Desormeaux.

Sweetnorthernsaint seems certain to use his speed to establish position from post 10, but Racketeer, in from Southern California for trainer Bobby Frankel, might set the early pace. He dueled for the lead on the way to a close fourth-place finish in the March 18 San Felipe at Santa Anita, Racketeer's stakes and two-turn debut.

"He was up on the pace and ended up on the worst part of the racetrack," Frankel said. "He ran very game."

And what spring 3-year-old race would be complete without a horse from the Todd Pletcher stable? For this spot Pletcher has My Golden Song, twice third and once fourth in Gulfstream Park stakes this winter.

"That's a difficult track to make up ground in the stretch, and basically we felt like it made some sense to change venues," Pletcher said. "The scheduling is right, and the longer stretch should help him."

The field

Illinois Derby
Purse: $500,000; 1 1/8 miles; Grade 2

1 MalameezeJ. McKee8-1
2Creative ForceE. Perez30-1
3ItsallboutthechaseC. Emigh12-1
4Lewis MichaelF. Alvarado20-1
5DevilofarushT. Baird30-1
6 Mister TriesterB. Blanc8-1
7Cause to BelieveR. Baze5-2
8 RacketeerP. Valenzuela5-1
9My Golden SongC. DeCarlo5-1
10SweetnorthernsaintK. Desormeaux4-1

* All starters carry 122 pounds
* Track morning line odds
* Television: Saturday, 5-6 p.m. (Eastern), NBC