03/17/2006 12:00AM

Lewis Michael moves to dirt for Illinois Derby

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STICKNEY, Ill. - Call Lewis Michael a poor man's Barbaro.

Barbaro, hailed last year as an especially brilliant young grass horse, made the jump to dirt this winter at Gulfstream, winning the Holy Bull Stakes in his main-track debut and in so doing marking himself as one of the top contenders for the Florida Derby. Lewis Michael will make the same surface switch April 8 in the $500,000 Illinois Derby, his connections said Friday.

And while Lewis Michael hasn't nearly the name recognition of Barbaro, he easily won a turf stakes race last fall at Churchill Downs, and has evinced talent since his career debut last summer at Arlington Park.

Lewis Michael, owned by Frank Calabrese and trained by Wayne Catalano, hasn't yet come north, and worked a bullet five furlongs Friday morning at the Palm Meadows training center, where assistant trainer Lars Becdelamotte is overseeing the Catalano-Calabrese horses not yet stabled at Hawthorne.

"He worked good, beat a horse that can run a little bit," said Catalano. "We'll bring him home and run in the Illinois Derby."

Strong works from Lewis Michael have been par for the recent course, Catalano said. From the beginning, the thought in the Catalano camp had been that Lewis Michael would be a late-developer. And while he won twice at 2, and was third to Barbaro in the Tropical Park Derby in December, he was doing that on talent alone.

"Now, the light's gone on for him," Catalano said. "Now he's finishing in his works, he's not lollygagging. He's been a horse that's not really known what to do. It's that time of year."

Catalano said Lewis Michael would ship to Hawthorne sometime next week, and have one work over the track before the Illinois Derby.

Cause to Believe, the leading northern California 3-year-old, leads the early list of Illinois Derby candidates. Trainer Chris Block said Friday that the Illinois-bred Creative Force, second in an allowance prep for the local derby last Tuesday also was being considered.

"I'm thinking about it for lack of a better idea," Block said. "I really don't have any opportunities for him other than Keeneland on the turf, and I think he might be fooling me a little bit on his turf ability."

Creative Force, who won the Jim Edgar Futurity here last December, isn't yet nominated to the Illinois Derby, but horses still can be made eligible to the race by March 25 for a payment of $500.

Beware of Gringa Hug

More positive news on the local field-size front, with a good number of horses entered for the second straight racing day: Sunday's nine-race card, which filled quickly on Friday, drew a total of 78 entries.

There's no real feature on the card, but the eighth race is for female entry-level allowance horses at six furlongs. Asyouwish looks like the horse to beat, but take a look at Gringa Hug, who has run well in three consecutive starts, and as a one-run closer had no chance to win her 2006 debut when racing on an inside-speed biased track here.

* First post on Fridays will move to 3 p.m. Central beginning March 31, the National Jockey Club announced Friday. The first late post falls before Daylight Savings Time, so the last several races will be run under lights. There will be five twilight starting times before the meet's end in early May.