04/04/2002 12:00AM

Repent's task: Regain respect

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CHICAGO - In a more forgiving world, Repent would enter the Illinois Derby as a solid early favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Repent finished second of 12 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He has won five times in seven starts and was victorious in his two races at age 3, both graded stakes.

But unforgiving light illuminates the road to the Kentucky Derby, and every move is scrutinized. Repent won the Grade 3 Risen Star at Fair Grounds by 2 1/4 lengths in his first start of the year, but when he lugged to the inside and failed to change leads during the stretch run, many said Repent had won ugly.

Then came the Louisiana Derby, in which Repent zig-zagged through the stretch, belatedly changed leads, and came within a nose of losing to Easyfromthegitgo, a horse he had easily beaten in the Risen Star. A chilly public reaction made the win seem more like a loss.

Saturday, Repent can atone for his ragged wins in an out-of-the-way Kentucky Derby prep, the $500,000 Illinois Derby. Repent faces nine rivals in the Grade 2 Illinois Derby, which will be run at 1 1/8 miles, Repent's first start at the distance.

One other horse in the race also deserves a national ranking - Fonz's, second in the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity in his final start at 2. Fonz's finished fifth March 2 in the San Rafael Stakes, his only start at 3, but trainer David LaCroix hopes Fonz's dislike of the Santa Anita racing surface was responsible for his sub-par performance.

The rest of the field is longer on potential than accomplishment. One Tuff Fox and War Emblem were impressive allowance winners in their last start, Peekskill finished third in the Florida Derby, and Publication was fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

The Illinois Derby winner is eligible for a $1 million bonus if he wins any Triple Crown race. By virtue of his Louisiana Derby win, Repent can collect another $1 million bonus if he wins the Kentucky Derby.

The Illinois Derby also is part of a national daily double with the Santa Anita Derby.

The bet's payoff will be boosted if Repent is unable to overcome a racetrack whose inside-speed-favoring profile could work against him. Repent is a long-winded closer who drew post 10, though a long run to the first turn gives jockey Jerry Bailey time to secure position.

"I think if you let him gallop along, then ride him hard, he's got a good quarter in him," said Ken McPeek, who trains Repent for the Select Stable. "He's susceptible to getting beat as long as there's a slow pace."

But there figures to be a fast pace Saturday. With so much emphasis on speed here, horses with early foot might be asked to pull out all the stops in an attempt to establish a clear lead. The fastest could be War Emblem, an Our Emblem colt owned by Russell Reineman and trained by Bobby Springer who won his prep for this race by more than 10 lengths. One Tuff Fox, who battled through fast fractions to win a Fair Grounds allowance in his last start, could push War Emblem early.

Fonz's shouldn't be far from the leaders, and Repent and Bailey will bide their time. Then we will see if Repent, ragged or fluid, is Kentucky Derby material after all.

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