04/15/2013 2:58PM

Hawthorne: Departing just what the Illinois Derby ordered

Ethel Castaneda/Coady Photography
Departing worked a sharp half-mile on Sunday at Churchill Downs.

STICKNEY, Ill. – Departing, who is likely to be favored over an expected 13 rivals Saturday in the Grade 3, $750,000 Illinois Derby, is just the kind of horse Hawthorne Race Course hoped to attract when it moved the signature race of its winter-spring season back on the calendar this year.

Denied a place on Churchill Downs’ new Kentucky Derby qualifying system, the Illinois Derby lost meaning as a Kentucky Derby prep race in 2013, and instead of scheduling the race four weeks before the Derby, its usual spot, Hawthorne officials moved the Illinois Derby to four weeks before the Preakness, hoping to lure at least a couple of higher-echelon 3-year-olds who might be pointed for the second leg of the Triple Crown. And Departing just might be that kind of horse.

Departing won the first three races of his career – a maiden and a first-level allowance at Fair Grounds, and the Texas Heritage Stakes at Sam Houston – before finishing a solid third in the Louisiana Derby. The 20 Kentucky Derby qualifying points he earned for that performance put Departing on the bubble for Derby qualification, but rather than take one final stab at securing a Derby berth, Departing’s connections took a more patient approach.

“After the race at Fair Grounds, the Derby was off the radar screen,” said Al Stall, who trains Departing for Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider. “He’s a gelding, and we want him around when he’s 6 years old. We don’t want to push right now. If he’d won the [Louisiana Derby] and got the 100 points and looked like he belonged, that would have been one thing.”

Departing, who will have regular rider Brian Hernandez named when entries for the 1 1/8-mile Illinois Derby are taken Wednesday, worked a sharp half-mile on Sunday at Churchill with former jockey Larry Melancon in the irons. His work was timed in 47 seconds, the fastest of 43 at the distance.

“That was the first time Larry Melancon had worked him since December, and he said he was a completely different animal,” Stall said. “He’s just become a racehorse since then.”

For a $6,000 fee, Departing was made a late nominee to the Triple Crown, but Stall stopped well short of calling Saturday’s race a stepping-stone to the Preakness.

“There’s no reason to talk about the Preakness until they run the Kentucky Derby,” he said.