03/30/2005 1:00AM

Illinois Derby: Big field but no stars


STICKNEY, Ill. - Laboriously, piece by piece, the field for the April 9 Illinois Derby is starting to take shape, with as many as 10 or 11 horses nationwide being considered for the Grade 2, $500,000 race at Hawthorne.

Among the prospective starters are no stars or budding stars; those horses are going to wind up in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn, the Blue Grass at Keeneland, and the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. But the local derby will draw heavily on 3-year-olds such as Magna Graduate, who will come back on two weeks' rest after finishing fourth, beaten three lengths, in the Lane's End Futurity last weekend at Turfway Park.

"He came out of his race super, and I don't see any reason not to run him back," said trainer Pat Byrne, who as of Wednesday morning still was seeking a rider for Magna Graduate, a stakes winner with earnings of more than $177,000. "He's been back at the track two days already. He's a tough colt. I don't think we need to sit back and wait for the Lexington, which is what I had originally thought."

The Lexington, a Grade 2, 1 1/16-mile race at Keeneland, will be run April 23.

One local horse, Win Me Over, is considered a probable starter for the 1 1/8-mile Illinois Derby. Several East Coast runners, and a few from the Midwest and California, also looking at the race.

Galloping Grocer, one of the better-known New York-based 3-year-olds, will start here if his connections choose to bypass the Wood, a decision likely to come Friday, according to Hawthorne racing officials.

One of two New York-based colts owned by Ernie Paragallo and trained by Jennifer Pedersen, Daddy Joe and Pavo, also is likely to ship from New York, as might Rikman and Scrappy T. Hawthorne also hopes to lure Greeley's Galaxy, an easy winner of a route allowance March 10 at Santa Anita, from California.

Among others being considered for the race are Kansas City Boy - second in the Holy Bull, but more recently seventh in the Louisiana Derby - along with Florida-based Monarch Lane and Unbridled Energy.

Julie's Prize ought to improve

Julie's Prize came into her 2005 debut, in the $75,000 Chou Croute Stakes on Feb. 20 at Fair Grounds, showing a limited workout pattern from the training center in Aiken, S.C., and she looked and ran like a horse who would benefit from a race.

Friday at Hawthorne, a leaner and meaner Julie's Prize should be on display in the $40,000 Merry Colleen, an overnight stakes for older females. Sixth with a wide trip in the Chou Croute, Julie's Prize has only four opponents in the Merry Colleen, a 1 1/16-mile dirt race.

The Illinois-bred Julie's Prize made more than $127,000 last season while winning twice, but her year did not go quite as well as her connections, owner Richard Otto and trainer Tony Mitchell, might have hoped. Still, she remains the de facto leader of the older statebred route division, and is easily the most accomplished horse in Friday's race.

"Absolutely," Mitchell responded, when asked Tuesday if Julie's Prize would move forward in this start. "She's come back and done a couple really decent breezes. Larry [Sterling] got on her yesterday and said she's all the way back."

Julie's Prize prefers to settle and make one run, tactics that can lead to trouble for a heavy favorite in a short field lacking pace. But Mitchell has that angle covered, too, since he also entered Alleged Whisper. Alleged Whisper led all the way winning an allowance race a month ago at Fair Grounds, and Mitchell said similar tactics will be employed Friday.

"She will be the pace out there, and Julie will have to come and get her, if she's good enough," Mitchell said.

Ghostly Gate, a high-end allowance winner March 10 at Oaklawn, is likely to get first run on Julie's Prize.

Stakes next for Humor at Last

Humor at Last, also trained by Mitchell, bounced back from three straight losses and won a second-level Illinois-bred sprint allowance here Tuesday, landing a spot in the six-furlong Land of Lincoln Stakes on April 30.

The race was Humor at Last's first sprint start since he began his career last year with two impressive wins, one against maidens, the second over Illinois-bred stakes horses. Humor at Last finished second in the Jim Edgar Futurity to cap his 2-year-old campaign, and after a decent third in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn, struggled with the Hawthorne racing surface and was unplaced in a two-turn overnight stakes here.

Tuesday, running on a moderately deep and tiring racetrack, Humor at Last got clear in the final half-furlong and pulled away the last 50 yards to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

"Larry [Sterling] had to ride him a little harder than I thought he would," Mitchell said, "but once he got his head in front of that horse, he stretched it out. We came back for a confidence race, and we got that."

* Hawthorne has jumped onto the reduced-base-wager bandwagon, and beginning Saturday, bettors can play 10-cent superfectas here. The 10-cent super will be offered on any race that has regular superfecta wagering, and post-race payoff information will be displayed both for $2 base wagers and 10-cent bets.