Updated on 09/17/2011 11:13AM

Illinois Derby: War Emblem II, where are you?

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Alysweep, who earned a 103 Beyer Speed Figure in the Gotham Stakes, must be ready to go the distance in Saturday's $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne.

CHICAGO - Two words and one year should be sufficient reminders not to dismiss Saturday's Illinois Derby as an insignificant Kentucky Derby prep race.

The words are War and Emblem, and it was a year ago that War Emblem preceded his run through two-thirds of the Triple Crown with a decisive win in the Illinois Derby.

At the time of his Chicago breakout, War Emblem looked a lot like the 10 horses that were entered in this year's $500,000, Grade 2 Illinois Derby - long on promise and short on accomplishment.

But aside from the War Emblem wannabes, this year's race lacks the standout favorite last year's had in Repent, who came here after winning the Louisiana Derby. This time, favoritism will fall to any one of three horses: Ten Most Wanted, Alysweep, or Lone Star Sky.

Foufa's Warrior, Blackinton, and Brian Dude seem overmatched, while Fund of Funds is a cut below his fellow New Yorker, Alysweep. Runnin' on Nitro has never raced around two turns, and Cherokee's Boy faces much stiffer competition than in two recent romps. Lurking in the shadows is Lx Commander, who - like War Emblem - easily won the local allowance prep for this race.

That's the whole field for the Illinois Derby, which at 1 1/8 miles taxes the staying power of these 3-year-olds.

Though he led all the way and easily won the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes in his only two-turn start - earning a 103 Beyer Speed Figure - Alysweep still must answer distance questions. His sire, End Sweep, fathers horses that show more speed than stamina.

"I don't see the distance as a factor. People figure he was the lone speed [in the Gotham] and that got him home," said trainer Pat Reynolds, who last fall claimed Alysweep for $75,000 for owners Mark Donneson and Michael Grub.

Alysweep's broodmare sire, Alysheba, won the Kentucky Derby and is a source of stamina. "This horse has a big heart - physically, I mean - a long stride, and he's real well balanced," Reynolds said.

But Alysweep probably must alter tactics to win Saturday, since the quick Runnin' on Nitro can beat Alysweep and jockey Richard Migliore to the lead. "The Mig knows the horse," Reynolds said. "He'll be rateable."

Last year's Illinois Derby was at speed-crazy Sportsman's Park, which has since closed, shifting the race to Hawthorne, which itself can be an inside-speed paradise. But recently this track has gotten deeper and less biased, and unless that changes Saturday, closers like Ten Most Wanted and Lone Star Sky have a fair chance.

While Lone Star Sky has made nine starts and has run in eight consecutive stakes, Ten Most Wanted has raced only four times with only a maiden win to his credit. But trainer Wally Dollase does not ship out of California on a whim, and Ten Most Wanted is a true distance horse whose best races are ahead of him.

Fourth in the Sham Stakes and third in the Grade 3 El Camino Real, Ten Most Wanted, Dollase said, "gets a little better with every race."

Ten Most Wanted is the only shipper with a work over the Hawthorne strip, which can be loose and tiring, but Lx Commander, based in Kentucky with trainer Bernie Flint, has a race over the track. Lx Commander - whose pedigree is nearly identical to Ten Most Wanted's - won a March 18 allowance here by more than 10 lengths, the same sort of race War Emblem used as his prep. Lx Commander has since turned in an exceptionally fast five-furlong work at Churchill Downs and looks like a live longshot.

The Illinois Derby will be televised live on ESPN and is part of a national pick three with the Aventura at Gulfstream and the Santa Anita Derby. It goes as race eight on a 10-race card that also includes the $100,000 Lost Code Breeders' Cup.

The Lost Code, for 3-year-olds at six furlongs, lost one of its stars when the connections of the unbeaten Battle Won passed the race. Six others entered, and the race divides neatly between contenders and longshots: My Calabrese, Unswept, and Coach Jimi Lee are logical, while Ww Conquistador, Iceplosion, and Right Uppercut are not.

My Calabrese has only a maiden win in four starts, but has a recent win over the racetrack and ran against good horses all winter at Fair Grounds. Owned by Frank Calabrese, My Calabrese is trained by Wayne Catalano, who has won with seven of 18 starters at the meet.

Unswept has done his best running against New York-breds but has talent, while Coach Jimi Lee turns back to a sprint after stretching out with moderate success in minor Florida stakes races his last two starts.

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