04/17/2013 5:11PM

Illinois Derby a rich consolation prize

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Jack Coady/Coady Photography
Departing, third in the Louisiana Derby, was made the 7-2 morning-line favorite for the Illinois Derby.

STICKNEY, Ill. - A normal year would have found trainer Greg Geier and his two talented Jim Tafel-bred and -owned 3-year-olds, Fordubai and Street Spice, stabled in New Orleans.

Street Spice and, in particular, Fordubai, showed enough at age 2 to have Geier contemplating the Kentucky Derby trail, but Geier, like every Hawthorne horsemen, found himself stuck in Chicago this winter, unable to leave because of an equine herpesvirus outbreak. So, instead of heading out of town to chase lucrative 3-year-old purses, Geier had to wait for the big money to come to him: Fordubai and Street Spice were among 14 3-year-olds entered Wednesday in the $750,000 Illinois Derby on Saturday.

The Illinois Derby was conspicuously left off Churchill Downs's list of races offering Kentucky Derby qualifying points, but a purse worth three-quarters of a million dollars drew plenty of interest anyway, with entrants shipping from Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania.

Departing, the third-place finisher March 30 in the $1 million Louisiana Derby, was made the 7-2 morning-line favorite, but will have to overcome a relatively tough draw of 13. The only horse outside Departing is Narvaez, the longshot fourth-place finisher in the Florida Derby.

Other plausible winners include Ground Transport, the Louisiana Derby fifth; Taken By the Storm, fourth in the Spiral Stakes; Show Some Magic and Abraham, second and third, respectively, in the Sunland Derby; and Siete de Oros, whose top race was a head loss to Kentucky Derby hopeful Vyjack in the Jerome Stakes.

As recently as Monday, Fordubai and Street Spice were questionable to make the Illinois Derby, with the 14-horse field determined by graded-stakes wins and placings, then by earnings in open races.

"I didn't think I was even going to get in," Geier said.

The equine herpesvirus outbreak led to the Hawthorne backstretch being quarantined Oct. 26. Many horsemen hopeful of leaving for winter quarters remained optimistic about departing before 2013; Geier was one of the first to grasp that the lockdown could last longer. By the time horses were permitted to travel to Fair Grounds in February, there was no point in going to New Orleans, which has a three-stakes series of 3-year-old dirt-route races culminating in the Louisiana Derby.

"These two colts, they had a lot of potential, and they still probably do, and it was too bad we had to go through all this," Geier said. "It would have been nice to run in those races there, try to get some [Derby] points."

Street Spice won a first-level, two-turn allowance race by a half-length over Fordubai last fall at Hawthorne, but Geier said Fordubai is the more advanced of the duo. The pair has done their last two works - including Fordubai's bullet five furlongs in 59 seconds April 7 - in company.

"Fordubai wins the works. The other colt doesn't do more than he has to. I think Fordubai might be a little smarter. Street Spice, he's still a big kid, hasn't put it all together. When he beat Fordubai, it was about the trip," Geier said.

Like the other three locally based Illinois Derby entrants - Bells Big Bernie, Dakota Mac, and Stormin Monarcho - Geier's horses have been training and racing over a Hawthorne main track that out-of-towners sometimes struggle to handle. It's a potential edge, but one Geier never intended. "They trained on this track all winter long," he said, laughing ruefully.