04/03/2002 12:00AM

Illinois Derby pits Repent vs. speed bias

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CHICAGO - With a glut of Kentucky Derby preps already on the market, some questioned the wisdom in 2001 of moving the Illinois Derby from its traditional spot on the racing calendar, a week after the Kentucky Derby, to its current position, four weeks in front of the Derby. But it just might work after all.

The field drawn Tuesday for Saturday's $500,000, Grade 2 Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park is a step up from last year's race. With 10 horses entered, the numbers are there; with the presence of , the race has star power; and Repent's supporting cast is not bad.

Since Sportsman's draws its Saturday races four days in advance, there's plenty of time to ponder strategy, and plenty of strategy to ponder. At nine furlongs, the Illinois Derby begins with a long run down the stretch, and riders will spare no energy or wiles trying to secure position before the first turn.

Sportsman's can be tricky, with sharp turns, a long straightaway and an often prominent inside bias. A seven-eighths-mile oval, Sportsman's features the longest stretch run in the country, but that doesn't necessarily mean there's a lot of passing going on in this stretch. Ever since Sportsman's was converted to a dual-use auto and horseracing facility, trucking in and out a dirt racing surface each season, the track to varying degrees has favored inside speed horses.

Front-runners often seem to bounce along on the springy Sportsman's cushion, while horses hung out wide on the turns - or who simply don't corner well - can be carried wider, away from the best part of the track, by their momentum.

Of late, the track has been exceptionally quick, though horsemen here praise the safety and quality of this surface even when it's fast. With a premium on speed and the rail, a fast pace could develop Saturday as several horses set out to control the pace and get to the best part of the track.

But who will get there? And will they battle so hard that the race falls into the lap of Repent, a late-running favorite who would be disadvantaged by a speed-biased surface?

Repent drew post 10, and jockey Jerry Bailey, a three-time Illinois Derby winner, will try to find a way to the inside. The horse in post 1, Publication (ridden by Randy Meier), also is a closer, and the speed is in the middle of the field, principally One Tuff Fox (Eddie Martin) and War Emblem (Larry Sterling). A pair of Mike Reavis-trained longshots, Secret Command (Shane Laviolette) and Boston Common (Chris Emigh), also have speed, while Fonz's (Alfredo Juarez Jr.), the likely second choice, was fast enough to win a 4 1/2-furlong race.

The remainder of the field is Changeintheweather (Mickey Walls), a Canadian Grade 1 winner; Peekskill (Jose Santos), a distant third in the Florida Derby; and another local longshot, Robin Zee (Jeremy Beasley).

War Emblem has the best chance of any locally based horse, and trainer Frank Springer thinks his colt has peaked at the right moment.

"I think he's as good as I can get him," Springer said this week.

Springer, who trains War Emblem for longtime Chicago owner Russell Reineman, has held the colt in high regard all year. He tried War Emblem in the Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds in his first start this year, and though War Emblem finished fifth, he was not badly beaten after contesting a swift pace. War Emblem was rated when he finished sixth in the Grade 3 Risen Star, but showed what he can do if allowed to roll on the lead, winning an open allowance prep for the Illinois Derby by almost 11 lengths March 17.

"I don't see how we can get him off the lead as sharp as he is," Springer said. "I don't think he has to be on the lead, but I think he will be."

War Emblem has a new rider in Larry Sterling, who is having an outstanding meet here. Sterling replaces Alfredo Juarez Jr., who rode War Emblem in his recent win, but took off the colt to ride Fonz's on Saturday.

With the arrival of Fonz's early Wednesday, only the three Illinois Derby entrants currently based in Kentucky are not in Chicago. Fonz's, who is based in Southern California with trainer David LaCroix, took a red-eye flight to Dayton, Ohio, on Tuesday night, then vanned to Chicago early Wednesday.

The Kentucky-based horses, Repent, Changeintheweather, and Peekskill, will van here closer to the race. Repent flew from south Florida to Louisville on Sunday and has trained this week at Churchill Downs, according to his trainer, Ken McPeek. Repent will board a Chicago-bound van Friday and spend the night in trainer Mickey Goldfine's shed row before running on Saturday.