04/18/2013 3:04PM

Illinois Derby has 14 at Hawthorne chasing $750,000


STICKNEY, Ill. – For those accustomed to Hawthorne’s daily fare, $5,000 claimers with $10,000 pots, the purse for the eighth race on Saturday’s card, the Illinois Derby, hits like a ton of bricks: $750,000.

“For that kind of money, you’ve got to take a shot,” said trainer Steve Hobby.

Hobby, who ships For Greater Glory for the race, is not the only one thinking that way. Thirteen trainers entered 14 horses in the Grade 3 Illinois Derby, and with no Kentucky Derby qualifying points at stake, the draw is the pot of gold that Hawthorne is dangling. The track, with grudging assent from the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, boosted the Illinois Derby purse by $250,000 this year, attempting to compensate for Churchill Downs Inc.’s controversial snub in its Derby qualifying series.

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

The Illinois Derby runner with the most qualifying points, 20, is Departing, but trainer Al Stall Jr. said earlier this week there is “zero chance” Departing would wheel back May 4 in the Kentucky Derby. A plurality of bettors, though, are likely to judge him the most likely winner Saturday, and Departing could easily be bet below his 7-2 morning-line favoritism.

A gelding bred and owned by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider, Departing won his Dec. 22 career debut in a Fair Grounds sprint, his second start in a Fair Grounds first-level allowance route, and his third race in the Texas Heritage Stakes. Departing suffered his first loss while running well in the $1 million Louisiana Derby, finishing third with a touch of stretch traffic.

Stall scratched Departing from the Risen Star Stakes in February after drawing wide but said post 13 Saturday is not of great concern. “The 13 hole at Hawthorne doesn’t bother me that much. You have a decent straightaway to get over,” Stall said.

Claiborne was among the prominent owners pledging to run young horses without Lasix, and Departing made his first four starts without the anti-bleeding medication. An endoscopic examination following the Louisiana Derby revealed traces of blood in his trachea, and Departing will be administered Lasix for the Illinois Derby.

Medication aside, this War Front gelding has the look of a steadily improving horse, and his only Churchill workout since shipping from New Orleans was a bullet half-mile April 14. “The best is yet to come, hopefully,” said Stall, who will leg up regular rider Brian Hernandez.

Stall has never won the Illinois Derby, but Todd Pletcher has four victories in the race and another chance with Abraham, a thrice-started Distorted Humor colt who was a fading third in the Sunland Derby, his stakes debut. In his prior race, Abraham beat maidens over the Illinois Derby’s 1 1/8-mile trip on a sloppy Gulfstream Park track.

“I think he had kind of a difficult trip at Sunland, stuck inside the whole way,” Pletcher said. “I thought he ran courageously considering that. He’s a big horse with good natural speed. I think for a track with a long stretch, Hawthorne can be pretty kind to speed. We’ve had a lot of success there with that kind of horse.”

Siete de Oros hasn’t started since he was a close fourth behind Kentucky Derby-bound Vyjack in the March 2 Gotham Stakes but enters sporting a strong one-mile workout in 1:41 March 27 at Parx. The gelding, a mere $2,000 auction buy owned by trainer Ramon Preciado, arrived in Chicago on Tuesday, and has been pointed to this race for weeks.

“He shipped pretty good. He was very relaxed yesterday,” Preciado said Thursday. “I think he can go a mile and an eighth. He trains like a horse that can go a mile and a half.”

Taken by the Storm’s best races, including a close fourth last out in the Spiral Stakes, have come on turf and synthetic, but his two dirt flops might not be definitive.

“I thought he deserved one more shot,” said trainer Ken McPeek. “His two dirt races are not indicative of his talent level. He’s got no excuse this time. He’s got the fitness and he’s run well in high company.”

Ground Transport, the Louisiana Derby fifth, has room to improve and “is doing really well,” according to trainer Mike Stidham. And Hobby’s entrant, For Greater Glory, is not without a longshot chance. In two recent Turfway Park stakes tries, For Greater Glory had his head turned when the gates opened, losing precious early position and any real chance to win. Hobby just wants to see the colt break decently and work out a stalking trip. After that, who knows what might happen. There are 750,000 reasons for coming to Hawthorne to find out.