04/09/2011 6:54PM

Illinois Derby a romp for Joe Vann

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Four-Footed Fotos
Joe Vann, Florent Geroux up, wins the Illinois Derby.

STICKNEY, Ill - Trainer Todd Pletcher won a Kentucky Derby prep race Saturday. It just wasn't the one everyone expected.

About 10 minutes before Uncle Mo went down to surprising defeat in the Wood Memorial, Pletcher-trained Joe Vann turned in a solid performance winning the Grade 3, $300,000 Illinois Derby by 4 1/4 lengths. Joe Vann was a maiden in mid-February, but now has won three races in a row by almost 14 lengths combined.

Joe Vann, a Zayat Stables-owned son of Silver Deputy and the Danzig mare Polish Flower, was ridden to victory by locally based Florent Geroux. Geroux, who struggled to attract steady business for a couple years in Chicago, has won 27 races at this meet, the third-highest total among Hawthorne riders. The Illinois Derby marked the second graded stakes win of his career.

Pletcher, on the other hand, has captured the Illinois Derby four times now. This victory came with a horse less accomplished and, potentially, slower than his previous winners. The Hawthorne main track probably was somewhat dull Saturday, but Joe Vann's winning time of 1:51.91 for 1 1/8 miles was the slowest winning Illinois Derby time in 25 years.

But give Joe Vann some credit. Talented enough to almost win a Saratoga maiden race at second asking, Joe Vann's form was erratic: He finished sixth, seventh, and ninth in three of his first five races. But after being shipped out of Gulfstream Park after a modest showing Jan. 8, Joe Vann blossomed. He won back-to-back races at Laurel Park coming into the Illinois Derby, and was in excellent position throughout Saturday's race, taking up a pressing spot as Lagoon of Diamonds set fractions of 23.81 seconds for the opening quarter-mile, 48.37 to the half, and 1:13.65 for six furlongs. And when Joe Van took on the pace-setter partway around the far turn, Geroux hadn't yet requested run.

"At the quarter pole I asked him, and when I asked him, he just re-broke like a rocket," said Geroux.
From there it was no contest. Zoebear, a maiden, rallied decently along the inside to pass The Fed Eased in late stretch for second. It was seven lengths from The Fed Eased back to fourth-place Sour, who was followed by El Grayling and Watch Me Go, the 2-1 favorite. Watch Me Go, winner of the Tampa Bay Derby, raced in behind the leaders the entire trip, and had no spark when jockey Luis Garcia called upon him.

"He dropped the bit a little at about the five-eighths pole, and that's not like him," Garcia said.

Joe Vann, who paid $12.60, won his first stakes, and earned $167,400 for his first-place finish. When the smoke clears this weekend, that amount of graded stakes earnings probably will put Joe Vann on the bubble in terms of qualifying for the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field, should his connections desire a spot in the starting gate. Joe Vann, scheduled to ship back to Kentucky on Saturday night, was not, however, an original nominee to the Triple Crown.

KENTUCKY DERBY NEWS: Track all the 3-year-olds on the Triple Crown trail