04/11/2014 10:49AM

Illinois Derby: Starters in flux but Tonito M. an intriguing possibility

Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club
Kid Cruz, shown winning the Private Terms Stakes on March 8 at Laurel, is being considered for the $500,000 Illinois Derby on April 19 at Hawthorne.

STICKNEY, Ill. – The notable exclusion of the Illinois Derby last year from Churchill Downs’s points-based qualifying system for the 20 starting slots in the Kentucky Derby dealt a big blow to Hawthorne Race Course, but it might not be such a calamity after all.

Hawthorne moved the Illinois Derby two weeks ahead of its usual position on the calendar last year, positioning the race as a stepping-stone to the Preakness. Coming two weeks before the Kentucky Derby, the Grade 3 Illinois Derby – its purse back down to $500,000 after a one-year run at the $750,000 level – stands ready to accept Triple Crown hopefuls who fail to garner the necessary qualifying points to start in the Kentucky Derby.

Exactly which horses that might include can’t really be known until after the last two major Derby qualifying races – the Blue Grass and the Arkansas Derby – are contested this weekend. Until that time, the points rankings are in deep flux, with perhaps a dozen horses vying for something like the last six spots in the Kentucky Derby field.

“This is the first year in many that I’m uncertain about the race this late. Everyone is looking at the points,” said Hawthorne’s stakes coordinator, Debbie Lindsay. “There are good horses that might not make the Derby because of the points. Say they don’t get to run in the big race. Then they need a Preakness prep, and here we are.”

Most of the upper-echelon 3-year-olds were early or late nominees to the Illinois Derby, which will be drawn Wednesday and contested April 19, and a very late berth can be purchased for a supplemental fee of $10,000. Lindsay said she hopes the race attracts 10 horses, but neither she nor anyone else will have an especially firm grasp on the probables until Sunday at the earliest.

A preliminary list of possible runners includes Bay of Plenty, Class Leader, Dynamic Impact, Kid Cruz, King Cyrus, Monopolize, Tonito M., and Undertaker.

Easily the most intriguing horse among that group is Tonito M., who is readying for his first start outside Puerto Rico, where he won six of his seven races at ages 2 and 3. Purchased privately by the M Racing stable of owner Mickey Gonzalez following an 11 1/2-length stakes score Feb. 16 at Camarero, Tonito M. arrived in trainer Jerry Hollendorfer’s barn March 14. He has since posted three timed workouts, most recently going six furlongs Wednesday in 1:15.20 at Santa Anita. But though Tonito M. was purchased with Triple Crown hopes in mind, Hollendorfer has yet to commit to the Illinois Derby or any other race.

“He’s big and good-looking, and the races he did run were very impressive,” Hollendorfer said. “When you have a horse that a guy bought and thought was the best horse in Puerto Rico, you have to have some goals. If he isn’t ready for this goal, we can make another goal.”

Tonito M., a winner of a Grade 1 race in Puerto Rico and three times successful in two-turn races, is a Kentucky-bred son of Rock Hard Ten. Tonito M. was purchased at auction for just $4,500 as a weanling and resold as a yearling for only $12,000. He was easily the best 3-year-old in Puerto Rico this year, but what exactly that means is far from certain – much like the composition of the Illinois Derby itself.