03/11/2006 1:00AM

Illinois Derby prep starts card


CHICAGO - Different racing secretaries have different styles when it comes to putting together a program. At Arlington, they are liable to sit, sit, and sit some more throughout the entry process, awaiting a couple more horses to beef up the fields. But Gary Duch, the racing secretary at Hawthorne, likes to keep it neat and clean. Get the entries, put out an overnight sheet, and get on with things.

Which is why it was notable when the National Jockey Club entry box stayed open so late on Saturday, with Duch and his staff scrambling to piece together a nine-race card for Tuesday.

In terms of quality, this may be the best day of racing so far this meet, but the lack of entries that has hurt recent cards came to a head Saturday. Duch even let a fourth-level allowance race make it onto the card with only five entries, and in Chicago, the smallest field one sees in the Racing Form - before scratches, that is - typically is six.

"It's been a struggle," Duch conceded. "The weather's been good, the work tab's been good - I don't know what's going on."

The good news is that an open allowance prep race for the April 8 Illinois Derby made it onto the Tuesday program after failing to attract sufficient entries when Monday's races were assembled on Friday. Whether the race contains any real threats to win the Illinois Derby, which has become a popular Kentucky Derby prep, is another question altogether.

In fact, the two most interesting horses in the race, which goes as the first, actually are Illinois-breds. And while Creative Force was several lengths superior to Tally Up when the two met last winter in the Jim Edgar Futurity, Tally Up comes into Tuesday's race off a powerful two-turn allowance victory, while Creative Force did little running in his

2006 debut, finishing 10th on the Gulfstream Park turf course in the Feb. 12 Hallandale Beach Handicap.

But Creative Force is a much better horse than that, and he was quite impressive scoring a pair of two-turn victories on the Hawthorne dirt last winter, and the racing surface here is not carrying speed the way it did when Tally Up posted an eight-length, front-running blowout two weeks ago. Four others were entered in the 1 1/16-mile race, and the presence of Dormy Lake, a stretchout sprinter, means Tally Up won't have things his own way on the lead.