03/28/2008 12:00AM

Illinois Derby cast taking shape


Saturday's Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne is expected to draw at least one major Kentucky Derby contender, Southwest Stakes winner Denis of Cork, when entries are taken Monday. And there is an outside possibility the race could land another graded-stakes-winning 3-year-old in Visionaire, who is also being considered for the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland the following week.

Denis of Cork, perfect in three starts, is the race headliner, and according to stakes coordinator Debbie Lindsay is expected to be joined in the starting gate by Atoned, the Tampa Bay Derby runner-up; Z Humor, Golden Spikes, and Kentucky Bear, the fourth-, fifth-, and seventh-place finishers from the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth; Instill, a stakes winner in Illinois-bred company at Hawthorne; Texas Heritage Stakes winner Real Appeal; and Recapturetheglory, an allowance colt who ran second to Cool Coal Man at Churchill Downs last November.

A decision on the plans of Grade 3 Gotham winner Visionaire is expected over the weekend, Lindsay said. His connections have been leaning toward starting him in the Blue Grass.

One horse that had been pointed toward the Illinois Derby but will not compete is Nikki'sgoldensteed, winner of the Turf Paradise Derby and the runner-up finisher in the El Camino Real Derby. Trainer Bob Hess said Friday the colt wrenched his ankle and will be given 60 days off. "All tests were negative, but he still had heat in it," he said.

The Grade 2 Illinois Derby, at 1 1/8 miles, was won last year by Cowtown Cat, who subsequently finished last of 20 in the Kentucky Derby. In 2002, War Emblem won both the Illinois and Kentucky derbies.

Silver Stairs vs. Mythical Star

Sunday's card at Hawthorne includes a pair of restricted stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs, one for 3-year-old colts and geldings and another for 3-year-old fillies. The races are for horses that were consigned to the 2007 Illinois Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' 2-year-olds training auction.

The first of the two stakes, the division for fillies, goes as the fifth race and appears to be a showdown between Silver Stairs, a runner-up in Illinois-bred allowance company March 7, and Mythical Star, who finished eighth in a second-level allowance for Illinois-breds March 10.

The male division, the sixth race, is the stronger stakes. Brixton's Conte is the expected favorite following a second-place finish in a fast second-level allowance for statebred runners March 9. He should be challenged by Denos Key, a three-length winner of his only race.