10/12/2004 12:00AM

Improving Hunting Hillbilly a derby threat

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CHICAGO - Phase One of trainer Chris Block's 3-year-old turf horse plan came close to being a smash hit. Last weekend, Block sent the Illinois-bred Fort Prado to Keeneland for Sunday's $100,000 Storm Cat Stakes, and at odds of 14-1, Fort Prado made a strong late run to finish second to a nice colt named Good Reward.

Phase Two comes Saturday at Block's current home base, Hawthorne, where he will run another 3-year-old grass horse, named Hunting Hillbilly, in the Grade 3 Hawthorne Derby.

Hunting Hillbilly has coloring to go with his offbeat name. A flashy chestnut, his coat is marked with splashes of white, including an unusual white ring around his knee. It's the kind of look horse folks out West will pay to own - but this colt is more than glitz. He has won two of his last three starts, including a solid score Sept. 25 at Hawthorne over older horses in a second-level allowance prep for the derby.

Who knew the gelding would ever get a shot in a $250,000 stakes? Hunting Hillbilly started his career in Florida with trainer Milt Wolfson, and he needed nine tries, all in claiming races, to win his maiden. But Hunting Hillbilly turned around on turf, where he's won four times in 13 starts. Block brought him to Arlington early in the summer, and Hunting Hillbilly has come steadily forward.

"He's a difficult horse to ride," Block said. "He's a little headstrong. The riders that have been on him have learned how to ride him. I thought he wanted to be farther back than he does. You don't want him dropping too far off the pace."

Hunting Hillbilly is no superstar, but that won't be required to win the derby, which apparently will lack a standout. Hawthorne racing officials had about seven likely starters as of Monday, and none of them would scare off a horse like Hunting Hillbilly.

"It looks like it's going to be pretty wide open," Block said.

Fort Prado, meanwhile, took a major step forward after a bad-trip loss last out at Arlington.

"I needed to know if he could step up and run with those kind of horses," Block said. "I was ecstatic with the way he ran."

Block said Fort Prado probably would return to Kentucky for his next start, a 3-year-old grass stakes next month at Churchill. Churchill also is the goal for the middle-distance turf horse Apt to Be, who worked last weekend at Hawthorne. Block has circled the Ack Ack Handicap at Churchill for Apt to Be's next start.

Marquez celebrates 2,000th - a tad early

The jockey Carlos Marquez Jr. was honored at Hawthorne Race Course last weekend for winning the 2000th race of his career.

"Every time you reach a goal like that, it's nice," Marquez said Monday. Marquez's father, a former jockey, attended Sunday's races, and "that made it real good," said Marquez.

There was one minor snag. Marquez's supposed Sunday milestone was actually his 1,998th win, according to Equibase and Daily Racing Form statistics. Official jockey stats sometimes are difficult to ascertain, and Hawthorne apparently made an error in tallying Marquez's wins.

Marquez scored another on Monday, getting him to 1,999, and since he has been winning regularly, he should have reached the 2,000 mark on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the jockey Chris Emigh really did reach a career 2,000 wins on Monday. And it came at a fitting time. Emigh, a longtime Chicago rider, is having one of his hottest spells in years, riding aggressively and successfully aboard live horses to take a 10-win lead in the standings through Monday's races.

Marquez was 12 wins behind, but he is giving up any chance to be leading rider here for a much richer target: the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Marquez is scheduled to ride Culinary, the Arlington-Washington Lassie winner, in the Juvenile Fillies. Marquez will go to Lone Star Park a couple weeks in advance of the Breeders' Cup, he said, to get a feel for the track and ride some races for Culinary's trainer, Mike Stidham, and whomever else might toss him business.

Post Breeders' Cup, Marquez could wind up at Fair Grounds, or continue riding in Chicago and await the Oaklawn Park meet early next year.

Herculated has 'thumps' after loss

Herculated, who finished eighth as the heavy favorite in Saturday's Carey Memorial Handicap, came out of the race no worse for the wear, and will be pointed to races at the Fair Grounds meet.

"He had the thumps afterward, but I don't know how much that affected him," Stidham said.

Theories abound on what causes the thumps, which sound like a bad case of hiccups. Herculated's feet have bothered him in the past, but Stidham said "his feet and legs seem fine."

* An entry-level allowance route for fillies and mares tops Hawthorne's nine-race Thursday program. The race may come down to Miss Sweet Time, the class of the field, and Ghostly Gal, a winner of two straight claiming races for the Steve Asmussen barn.