12/11/2003 1:00AM

Illinois Derby tops meet

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The Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby, which has become an important Triple Crown prep, will again be the centerpiece of the stakes schedule during the 2004 National Jockey Club-at-Hawthorne meeting.

The NJC meeting, which kicks off the Chicago Thoroughbred season, will run from Feb. 27 through May 11.

The Illinois Derby, scheduled for April 3, has been used as a springboard to stardom by War Emblem and Ten Most Wanted the last two years. War Emblem, the 2002 winner, went on to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Eclipse Award as best 3-year-old male. The 2003 Illinois Derby winner, Ten Most Wanted, went on to finish second in the Belmont Stakes and win the Travers and Super Derby.

The Grade 3 National Jockey Club Handicap for older horses and the Grade 3 Sixty Sails Handicap for older fillies and mares are the only other graded stakes during the meet. Both races carry a purse of $250,000 and they will be run April 17 and April 24, respectively.

Illinois Champions Day, which comprises six $100,000 stakes for statebreds, will be held April 10.

Minor changes to the 2004 stakes schedule include the return of the Lost Code Breeders' Cup after a one-year hiatus.

The Violet Stakes, for Illinois-bred 3-year-old fillies, has been renamed the Lady Hallie Stakes. The Lady Hallie Handicap, an open race for older fillies and mares, will not be run in 2004.