04/05/2012 12:47PM

Illinois Derby: Distance, class questions for much of field

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Barbara D. Livingston
Currency Swap will be making his first start around two turns in the Grade 3 Illinois Derby.

Mid-Atlantic-based trainer Mike Trombetta came to Hawthorne Race Course in 2006 with a relatively unproven 3-year-old named Sweetnorthernsaint. The questions being asked of Hakama, Trombetta’s entrant in Saturday’s Illinois Derby, are the same as were asked of Sweetnorthernsaint: Can he get the distance? Is he good enough?

“I remember having these same conversations about six years ago,” Trombetta said.

Sweetnorthernsaint wound up winning the Illinois Derby and going off as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, where he finished seventh. But the questions asked of both him and Hakama apply equally to 16 other horses entered in Saturday’s race, the highlight of the Hawthorne spring meet: Can they go this far? Are they good enough?

The Illinois Derby, a Grade 3 with $500,000 of graded stakes earnings available for Kentucky Derby hopefuls, will have 14 starters when the field goes to post Saturday at 5:46 p.m. Central. The local derby goes as race 9 of 10 on a card that starts at 1:40 and also includes a decent overnight dirt-route stakes, the $60,000 Cryptoclearance. The derby has three also-eligibles should any of the horses in the main body of the field withdraw before scratch time Saturday.

While horses like Hakama – and there are many like him in the field – have no experience at the Illinois Derby’s nine-furlong distance, one horse, Currency Swap, has little to answer for in terms of basic ability. After winning his career debut last summer at Saratoga, he went on to win the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes by three-quarters of a length, the best single performance turned in by any horse entered in the Illinois Derby.

Currency Swap, however, made no more starts at age 2 following his Hopeful win, his season curtailed by a September ankle injury that required surgery. Currency Swap, trainer Theresa Pompay said, was out of action for nearly two months, but before Christmas last year, he began swimming to establish fundamental fitness at a farm near Ocala, Fla. By late January, Currency Swap had rejoined Pompay’s stable, and he has since progressed steadily.

Currency Swap finished second in his 3-year-old debut, where he ran into likely Wood Memorial favorite Gemologist in a March 16 first-level allowance race at Gulfstream, but while beaten 10 lengths that day, Currency Swap had a valuable experience.

“He’s a heavily muscled horse, and it takes a lot to get him fit,” Pompay said. “It just seemed like there was a big improvement after his race. It kind of shook him up a little bit.”

By the somewhat obscure sire High Cotton, Currency Swap, who displayed good sprint speed in 2011, has yet to make a start around two turns, but Pompay said distance doesn’t concern her.

“I think he’ll be able to go the distance, and we always thought that of him,” she said. “I always thought he could get a mile and an eighth, a mile and a quarter.”

Our Entourage, the Todd Pletcher-trained starter, has lost both his dirt starts, but is a two-time turf winner who at least figures to stay the trip Saturday.

“The further he goes, the better he’s going to get,” said Pletcher, who won the Illinois Derby in 2011, 2007, 2004, and 2001.

Our Entourage and jockey Eddie Castro should be coming from off the pace, and with several speed types entered, that might turn out to be a good spot.

Currency Swap looks like he has as much pace as any horse, but recent Aqueduct maiden winner Morgan’s Guerrilla also should try for the lead. Several others, Hakama among them, would prefer to race forwardly, but don’t necessarily want to set the pace.

Sandwiched between two wins and a second for Hakama, a First Samurai colt, was a dud performance in the Withers, where he finished a distant fifth.

“That race jumps out at me, too,” Trombetta said. “He came out of the race with a small laceration on his hind ankle – not enough that you’d think it would cause him to run that poorly – but if another horse stepped on him or something, it might have caused something.”

Ring It Up, fourth in a division of the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn, had to be scratched the morning of the Rebel Stakes after spiking a temperature.

“The very next day his temp was back to normal,” trainer Chris Richard said. “He’s been back in training and he’s been breezing very good. I do like this horse going a mile and an eighth.”

Z Rockstar finished sixth in a second division of the Southwest, but bounced back March 16 with a sharp allowance race win. He seems to be coming up to Saturday’s race the right way, but so do several other members of the field.

And those same questions keep hovering over the race: Who is good enough? Who can go this far?

Illinois Derby (G2), Post Time: 5:46 CT Saturday

Purse: $500,000; 1 1/8 miles

Post

Horse

Trainer

Jockey

ML Odds

1

Romancing The Gold

J. Englehart

I. Ortiz, Jr.

15-1

1

Hakama

M. Trombetta

J. Pimentel

6-1

1

Ring It Up

C. Richard

L. Wade

15-1

1

Currency Swap

T. Pompay

S. Bridgmohan

4-1

1

Pretension

C. Grove

J. Santiago

5-1

1

Skyring

D. Lukas

R. Vazquez

20-1

1

Saturday Launch

K. McPeek

C. Emigh

15-1

1

Z Rockstar

D. Von Hemel

Q. Hamilton

10-1

1

Fastestwhogetspaid

B. Williamson

I. Ocampo

30-1

1

Frankie Is Rock

R. Aguilar

E. Perez

30-1

1

Our Entourage

T. Pletcher

E. Castro

9-2

1

Morgan's Guerrilla

M. Maker

R. Napravnik

10-1

1

Done Talking

H. Smith

S. Russell

20-1

1

Slamit

T. Ice

C. Hill

30-1

1

Explain (AE)

B. Cox

F. Torres

20-1

1

Arm Force (AE)

E. Harty

E. Castro

15-1

1

Defiant Flyer (AE)

L. Davis

S. Martinez

30-1