04/20/2013 6:28PM

Illinois Derby: Departing delivers despite wide trip

Four Footed Fotos
Departing, under Brian Hernandez Jr., wins the Grade 3 Illinois Derby by 3 1/4 lengths.

STICKNEY, Ill. – Departing will not run in the Kentucky Derby, but his win Saturday at Hawthorne in the Illinois Derby suggested he is among the elite members of this year’s 3-year-old crop.

Breaking from post 13 and racing wide around both turns, Departing powered to the lead at the top of the long Hawthorne stretch and scored an impressive 3 1/4-length victory in the Grade 3, $750,000 Illinois Derby.

Fordubai, a locally based longshot, held second by a neck over Siete de Oros, with Abraham another length back in fourth. Fordubai shied from signs along the inside rail inside the sixteenth pole, causing Abraham to check, but the result was left unchanged after a jockey’s objection and stewards’ inquiry.

The Illinois Derby offered no points to qualify horses for the Kentucky Derby, should the connections of more than 20 horses desire a spot in the race, but Departing wasn’t going anyway.

A gelding, Departing was made a $6,000 late nominee to the Triple Crown in March, but even after a solid third-place finish in the $1 million Louisiana Derby on March 30, which earned Departing 20 points toward the Derby, owners-breeders Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider and trainer Al Stall weren’t focused on the first Saturday in May.

“The Derby was never on the radar for us,” Stall said.

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

Departing was gelded as a yearling while in early training in Aiken, S.C., according to Dell Hancock of Claiborne. “He wouldn’t settle, but he’s good and settled now,” she said.

By War Front and out of the Pulpit mare Leave, Departing didn’t make his career debut until Dec. 22, when he won a six-furlong Fair Grounds maiden race by 2 1/4 lengths. Stretched out to two turns in his second race, Departing won by more than four, but Stall scratched him from the Feb. 19 Risen Star Stakes because of an outside post, instead sending Departing to Sam Houston, where he comfortably won the $50,000 Texas Heritage Stakes.

Departing didn’t have one of the worst trips in the Louisiana Derby, but his journey wasn’t ideal either, and Stall thought the horse was slightly green when challenged by several rivals in the stretch.

On Saturday, making his fifth start and his first with the anti-bleeder medication Lasix, Departing appeared to put everything together.

“I just thought today he was more focused,” said Brian Hernandez Jr., the only race rider Departing has known. “Last time, he got a little mad in the post parade, but today he was perfect.”

Departing broke decently but didn’t handle the first part of the first turn especially well, cornering about five paths wide while setting down into a midpack spot, as Ground Transport took the early lead over Taken by the Storm and Dakota Mac, setting splits of 23.20 seconds for the opening quarter-mile and 47.71 for the half.

Hernandez said Departing didn’t like dirt being kicked back into his face as he hit the turn, but he settled into a comfortable stride turning down the backstretch.

“I knew I had them as soon as he got onto the backstretch,” Hernandez said. “He basically just dragged me up toward the lead.”

Departing raced wide around the far turn as Ground Transport checked out, with the stalking Fordubai and Abraham making their moves toward the front. Hernandez was four wide when he turned for home, and Departing changed leads right on cue, opening a clear lead and racing unchallenged to the wire, stopping the timer in a solid 1:50.78 for 1 1/8 miles on a fast track.

“He galloped out really good, too,” Hernandez said.

Hawthorne billed this year’s Illinois Derby, moved back two weeks on the calendar, as a Preakness prep, and the race could very well produce one or more starters for the Triple Crown’s second leg. Departing’s connections will consider it, but Stall said they would wait until the Derby is run to make a final call.

Fordubai’s trainer, Greg Geier, said the Preakness would be one of several races under consideration for his horse, while Ramon Preciado, the trainer of Siete de Oros, hinted that he would give strong consideration to a Preakness start.