04/09/2007 11:00PM

Pace favors Gotta Good Feeling in sales stakes

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CHICAGO - Sometimes the Illinois Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Foundation Sales Graduate Stakes has more words in its name than horses in the race. But this year both the male and female divisions of the race drew good numbers, although the field of 3-year-old fillies is decidedly weaker than that of 3-year-old colts and geldings.

The ITBOF Graduate Stakes go as races 6 (boys) and 7 (girls) on Hawthorne's nine-race program Thursday, the first card since a four-day, Easter-based hiatus that began Sunday, the day after the meet's highlight, Illinois Derby Day. Race 8 on Thursday, a third-level sprint allowance race for fillies and mares, also sports a field that bettors might find appealing.

Any race open only to horses from a regional sale is going to be short on depth, but the colts and geldings division of the ITBOF Graduate isn't bad. Gotta Good Feeling was an unraced maiden into late March, but he looks like the horse to beat in Thursday's sixth.

From the Dee Poulos Stable, Gotta Good Feeling debuted March 1 at Hawthorne and won an open maiden race by 1 1/2 lengths, somewhat easily beating the favored pair of Frank Joseph and Boaz. Three weeks later, Gotta Good Feeling had only three rivals in an entry-level sprint allowance, and finished a solid second to the moderately promising colt Piratesonthelake. In both starts, Gotta Good Feeling broke from the rail, tracked the pace, and came home well. Thursday, he has post 2, and similar tactics could prove successful, with on-the-pace horses drawn both inside and outside of him.

Sweet Baby Ray is among Gotta Good Feeling's rivals. Sweet Baby Ray was awarded a maiden win by virtue of a post-race medication disqualification, so when he won a conditioned claiming race March 22 at Hawthorne, it marked the first time he was first past the finish. But that was a sharp front-running score, and Sweet Baby Ray has a chance to repeat Thursday if he can avoid a speed duel with rail-drawn Gostoso. He's Hot Sauce, an easy Illinois-bred maiden winner last out, also looks competitive.

Race 7, the filly division, could be straightforward if Quiet Kingdom runs the same way in her first 2007 start as she did in her last three races of 2006. But a 14-week layoff is a concern, and Tinsel Time - who appeared to dislike wet going in her most recent out - might be a decent alternative to Quiet Kingdom, the likely favorite.

Next steps for Illinois Derby runners

Among horses that ran well Saturday in the Illinois Derby, only the winner, Cowtown Cat, is considered a likely starter for the Kentucky Derby, though Cobalt Blue, the badly beaten favorite Saturday, has not been ruled out of the race.

Reporting for Duty edged Bold Start for place money in the race, and both horses have gone on to Kentucky to prepare for future engagements. Reporting for Duty is expected to race May 12 in the Lone Star Derby, while Ken McPeek is leaning toward the Derby Trial over the Lexington Stakes for Bold Start, who had a less-than-ideal trip Saturday.

"He's a good, solid horse, and he came out of the race great," McPeek said. "He's getting more and more professional every time."