04/02/2010 12:00AM

Illinois Derby a chance to step up

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STICKNEY, Ill. - Call the Illinois Derby a Kentucky Derby prep if you must, but if the race has a true Kentucky Derby horse among the eight entered, it won't be apparent until the dust has settled late Saturday afternoon at Hawthorne Race Course.

Backtalk and American Lion, the most accomplished horses, both won graded stakes last year at 2, but neither they nor anyone else in the Illinois octet would be labeled a Derby player - not yet, at least.

"At the end of the day, no matter how much you want them to do it, they should earn a legitimate spot in the [Kentucky Derby] starting gate," said American Lion's trainer, Eoin Harty. "The fact they showed promise at 2 isn't good enough. I don't want to show up in the Derby with a 25-1 shot."

American Lion makes his dirt debut as do the other three horses from California - Boulder Creek, Dave in Dixie, and Stephen's Got Hope. Backtalk got here from Fair Grounds on Sunday night. Yawanna Twist, who worked three furlongs in 38 seconds Thursday at Hawthorne, Turf Melody, and Game Ball are East Coast-based dirt runners.

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The Illinois Derby, a Grade 3 worth $500,000 and contested at 1 1/8 miles, goes as race 7, with a scheduled local post time of 4:37 Central. The weather forecast calls for a 50 percent chance of rain.

American Lion is by Tiznow, whose progeny handle all surfaces, and he typically employs a front-running style often more effective on dirt than synthetic tracks. American Lion won the Grade 3 Hollywood Preview over a Cushion Track surface in his 2-year-old finale, but so far in 2010 has not improved upon that performance. He faded to third in his 3-year-old debut, the Feb. 13 Robert Lewis, and fell back from second to fourth in the stretch run of the March 13 San Felipe.

Harty has been tinkering: Blinkers were added in the San Felipe, but come off again Saturday.

"We put them on because I just thought he had a tendency to wait on horses and wasn't focused, but when we put them on the other day, he got real rank," Harty said.

American Lion and new rider David Flores drew the rail in a race lacking pace and could wind up leading. Hawthorne's track surface has periodically favored speed this spring, but on Wednesday, speed and the rail were detrimental.

Backtalk has more wins (4) and greater earnings ($241,206) than his Illinois Derby rivals, but must show that he's more than a late-running sprinter-miler. His strong form at age 2 came in sprints, and Backtalk's 2009 campaign ended with an eighth-place finish in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, his two-turn and synthetic-track debut. Backtalk won a two-turn Delta Downs stakes in his lone 2010 start, but Saturday's race will test his stamina.

"He won going a mile at Delta from a position at the head of the lane where horses don't typically win there, but there's no denying Delta's a track that plays to sprinters," Amoss said. "To say he's a route horse off that race would not be fair."

Backtalk does possess a route-oriented pedigree, and in his final drill for Saturday's race, he turned in the fastest work in recent Fair Grounds memory, going six furlongs in 1:09.60.

Yawanna Twist, who made his first start Dec. 26, dominated New York-breds at the maiden and entry-level allowance class and stepped up to the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes while making his two-turn debut March 6, finishing a closing second.

"Bottom line is we were thrilled with his race," trainer Rick Dutrow said. "We're hoping the mile and an eighth is in his range. He's already shown he can get two turns."

Turf Melody rallied from 10th to finish fourth in the 1 1/16-mile Gotham, and trainer Graham Motion looks forward to trying longer distances. More distance plus dirt racing also could boost late-running Dave in Dixie. Stephen's Got Hope was fifth in the San Felipe, but has never won. Boulder Creek and Game Ball both would need monumental improvement to win.

* Shadowbdancing is the one to catch and beat in the $50,000 Crtyptoclearance, the only other stakes on Saturday's card.