04/04/2009 12:00AM

Perfect Song figures to lead way in Ill. Derby


STICKNEY, Ill. - Will it be a War Emblem year? Or a Cowtown Cat kind of season?

The Illinois Derby has produced a Kentucky Derby starter every year since 2002, when War Emblem won at Sportsman's Park and went on to a 20-1 Kentucky Derby score. The Illinois Derby moved to Hawthorne the next year and has since produced no major Derby player. Cowtown Cat, for one, was last of 20 in 2007.

If a Triple Crown hopeful emerges Saturday, he'll probably come from a core of three horses - Giant Oak, Musket Man, and Perfect Song - that look best among a likely field of 10. Eleven were entered in the local derby, a Grade 2 race carded for 1 1/8 miles and worth $500,000, but Lord Justice will be scratched to run in the Wood Memorial.

Knight Shot, Toccet Rocket, and His Greatness are the big longshots. Above them sit unlikely but not impossible Free Country and Il Postino. Il Postino only has beaten $20,000 maiden claimers, but he is trained by Todd Pletcher, who won this race two, five, and nine years ago. Pletcher's second horse, Al Khali, looks on paper about on par with Nowhere to Hide, the Nick Zito-trained colt supplemented to Saturday's race. Nowhere to Hide finished fourth with less-than-ideal trips in the Risen Star Stakes and Tampa Bay Derby. Al Khali, a Peruvian import, pressed a moderate pace and won his only U.S. start, a Gulfstream entry-level allowance over 1 1/8 miles.

"He seems to have a lot of stamina," Pletcher said. "He should be forwardly placed, probably not on the lead."

Perfect Song probably will be on the lead. In from Maryland, Perfect Song is trained by Mike Trombetta, who sent Sweetnorthernsaint out to win this race in 2006. A winner of dirt races at six furlongs and a one-turn mile, Perfect Song struggled on Turfway Park's Polytrack in his lone loss. Perfect Song possesses sprinter's speed, but the horse is by Breeders' Cup Classic winner Pleasantly Perfect and is described as "big and strong" by his trainer. If allowed an easy lead in his two-turn debut, Perfect Song could prove difficult to catch.

"Speed's always dangerous," Trombetta said.

Musket Man, a May foal, won the March 14 Tampa Bay Derby and has lost only once in five career starts. Trainer Derek Ryan said he circled the Illinois Derby even before Musket Man rallied five wide to win by a neck last out at Tampa.

"I like to have a plan, not just pick out races as you go along," Ryan said.

Musket Man has enough speed to stay close to a reasonable pace and has passed horses between the stretch call and the finish three times.

"He's an easy horse to ride, and you can put him anywhere you want," said Ryan, who tabbed Eibar Coa to ride Musket Man for the first time.

And finally, there's Giant Oak, who also gets a new pilot, Shaun Bridgmohan. Owned by Chicagoans Virginia and Rudy Tarra, Giant Oak began the winter as one of the more promising Fair Grounds-based 3-year-olds. But Giant Oak was stopped cold at the half-mile pole of the Risen Star Stakes, finishing fifth, and he wound up fourth of nine after falling far behind a slow pace over a sloppy track in the Louisiana Derby. Trainer Chris Block - who will scratch Giant Oak if Hawthorne comes up muddy - does not want a repeat of the Louisiana Derby.

"I'm going to tell Shaun that if the pace is moderate, get him into the race," Block said. "Don't let him fall back and lollygag. If the pace is clicking along, I'm okay with whatever his position is, but if it's 49 to the half, make him belly down and give us what he's capable of doing."

Giant Oak has seemed capable of something serious for months. Saturday at Hawthorne would be the time to show it.