Updated on 04/10/2011 8:49AM

Hawthorne: Illinois Derby has Watch Me Go in favorite's role


ILLINOIS DERBY: Watch the race live on DRF.com


STICKNEY, Ill. – On March 12, in the Tampa Bay Derby, race watchers countrywide were caught looking at their past performances as the winner, Watch Me Go, crossed the wire. Watch Me who? The colt who beat heavily favored Brethren and seven others was 43-1.

Saturday at Hawthorne, the long price on Watch Me Go is long gone. Anonymous a month ago, Watch Me Go looks like the favorite in a wacky edition of the Grade 3, $300,000 Illinois Derby.

Watch Me Go is one of 12 horses entered in the 1 1/8-mile race. Four of his rivals never have won, and none of Watch Me Go’s opponents has notched a stakes win. The rail horse, Lagoon of Diamonds, stretches out from a 4 1/2-furlong sprint at Mountaineer Park. El Grayling was eased in his last outing. Joe Vann somehow made his last two starts at Laurel Park, where trainer Todd Pletcher has no horses. The pieces of this puzzle do not neatly fit.

But questions of quality pertain even to Watch Me Go. Yes, Watch Me Go was narrowly best at Tampa, but second-best was Crimson Knight, an 86-1 shot exiting a maiden claimer. Any one of several other Illinois Derby horses − Sour, El Grayling, Joe Vann, or The Fed Eased − might have won that race, too.

Kathleen O’Connell, who trains Watch Me Go for owner-breeder Gil Campbell, isn’t overrating the win.

“He still has to prove he belongs,” she said.

But O’Connell praises Watch Me Go’s intelligence and said she is impressed by his versatility: Watch Me Go has won at distances from 4 1/2 to 8 1/2 furlongs, from on the lead and off the pace.

Watch Me Go had been considered for the April 3 Florida Derby, but mucus was found in his respiratory system four days out. O’Connell said Watch Me Go never was sick and attributed the mucus to allergies. The horse flew here Wednesday and was to get in a Friday training session.

Joe Vann has won his last two starts by combined 9 1/2 lengths but has lost three others by more than 76.

“He has been frustrating at times,” said Pletcher, who has compiled a 10-5-1 record from 26 Hawthorne stakes starters.

Pletcher explained Joe Vann wound up at Laurel because a maiden race at Aqueduct failed to fill: When Joe Vann scored an overdue first victory, Pletcher sent him back to win an entry-level allowance. Drawn in post 3, Joe Vann should be a pace factor under Florent Geroux.

“He’s a horse that seems to run best when forwardly placed,” Pletcher said.

After scoring a second-start blowout maiden win at Aqueduct, The Fed Eased faded to fifth after setting the pace in the Gotham Stakes, but trainer Rick Violette said he envisions different tactics.

“I’m sure we’ll have some horses in front of us Saturday,” he said.

El Grayling’s close third Feb. 5 behind Shackleford, the Florida Derby runner-up, makes him look like an Illinois Derby contender. His failure to finish the Fountain of Youth is less encouraging.

Sour could get a sweet off-the-pace setup if all the speed shows Saturday.

“On paper it looks like his dream trip,” trainer Al Stall said.

The Illinois Derby, carded as race 7 with a scheduled local post time of 4:37, can be seen live at www.drf.com and on Television Games Network. The weather forecast calls for a slight chance of thunderstorms, with showers likely Friday. Rain might do the racing surface good: The track here has lately been extremely deep and laboring.

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