03/27/2004 1:00AM

Illinois Derby attracts new players


STICKNEY, Ill. - War Emblem two years ago, Ten Most Wanted last season - the decision two years ago to move the Illinois Derby out of its traditional spot one week after the Kentucky Derby has paid off. Now the $500,000 Illinois Derby is a Kentucky Derby prep race, and this year's edition is scheduled for Saturday at National Jockey Club's meet at Hawthorne Park.

Neither War Emblem, the dual Classic winner, nor Ten Most Wanted, last year's Travers winner, was a household name coming into the Illinois Derby, so it would be premature to dismiss the 10 horses considered probable starters for Saturday's race by Hawthorne racing officials. That said, none of the best-known 2004 3-year-olds are pointing for the Illinois Derby, though in this scrambled Kentucky Derby prep season, the best-known 3-year-olds have been dropping like flies.

Tiger Hunt might have been the race's biggest name, but his trainer, the Oaklawn Park-based Ralph Nicks, said Saturday afternoon that Tiger Hunt isn't coming to Chicago. Tiger Hunt hasn't started since finishing fourth last October in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

"The horse is fine," said Nicks, who trains Tiger Hunt for a Team Valor partnership. "He's just not ready for a shipping race of this caliber."

Also opting for a different path was trainer Rick Violette, who said Saturday that Swingforthefences, third last out in the Tampa Bay Derby, is passing the Illinois Derby in favor of the Wood Memorial.

"Right now, it looks like we're going to do the Wood," said Violette, who sent Fund of Funds here to finish second in last year's race. "An extra week [between starts] looks like what we're going to do."

Those two defections probably leave Pollard's Vision as the favorite. Pollard's Vision, a one-eyed Carson City colt trained by Todd Pletcher, finished third last out in the Louisiana Derby, his first stakes race as a 3-year-old. Pollard's Vision was beaten just over two lengths by Wimbledon and was a head behind Borrego for second.

The other possible starters are: Farnum Alley; Judiths Wild Rush; Kilgowan; O.K. Mikie; Pure American; Skipaslew; Song of the Sword; Suave; and White Mountain Boy.