04/04/2006 11:00PM

Rise came quickly for Sweetnorthernsaint

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STICKNEY, Ill - Sweetnorthernsaint will be one of the top betting choices Saturday in the $500,000 Illinois Derby, but just a few months ago he would have seemed like a longshot to make any kind of stakes race. As of mid-December, his form showed one race, which came during the summer of his 2-year-old season - if one can really call it a race. Sweetnorthernsaint made his debut in a one-mile turf race at Colonial Downs, and his major accomplishment was passing two horses in the stretch to finish 12th, beaten 24 lengths.

But there were major changes on the horizon. The first came when shortly after that inauspicious beginning Sweetnorthernsaint was sent from the barn of trainer Leo Azpurua to trainer Mike Trombetta in Maryland. The second came a couple of weeks later, when Sweetnorthernsaint was gelded.

"He came to me with the recommendation that he be castrated," Trombetta said last week. "I think he had a difficult streak to him."

The difficulty since then has been catching up to Sweetnorthernsaint. Back to the races in December, Sweetnorthernsaint won three straight times by a combined 34 lengths before finishing a close, closing third in the March 18 Gotham Stakes, his first try around two turns.

"We liked the horse, but honestly, I didn't have any idea he'd be this good," said Trombetta.

In fact, Trombetta and Sweetnorthernsaint's owners decided to put Sweetnorthernsaint in a $40,000 maiden claimer the first time he ran back after the long layoff. With one ugly running line on his form and a middle-of-the-road pedigree, Sweetnorthernsaint didn't figure to be claimed. Someone, somewhere bet on him that day, since Sweetnorthernsaint went off at odds of 3-2 in a seven-horse field. And someone, somewhere, was extremely disappointed after Sweetnorthernsaint won by 16 lengths but was disqualified to fourth for interference leaving the gate.

Trombetta said he ran for a claiming tag to protect Sweetnorthernsaint from tough maiden special weight horses in his first real race, but when Sweetnorthernsaint ran like a stakes horse, there was a brief moment of great fear.

"Before he was even pulled up I went running to find if there were any claims in the race," Trombetta said. "That could have been something that would've been hard to live with."

Sweetnorthernsaint made hash of maiden special weights at Aqueduct just as he had the maiden claimers at Laurel, and then won the $57,000 Miracle Wood Stakes by 10 lengths. He broke from post 10 in the Gotham, lost ground, and was rated off the pace for the first time, but was gaining on Like Now and Keyed Entry, the one-two finishers, in the final yards.

Sweetnorthernsaint has plenty of route speed. He runs straight and with his head held low, and has a high cruising pace that he can sustain over a distance of ground.

"He's not a real huge, masculine horse, but he has a lot of size and scope to him," Trombetta said. "He's made to do the distance. I think time is going to be to his advantage. He'll amass the muscle tone he needs to do these distances. He's changing by the minute right now."

3-year-old sprinters in undercard stakes

Besides the Illinois Derby, which drew a field of 10 and goes as race 7 on Saturday, there are two other stakes races on the card. But neither the $100,000 Meafara for 3-year-old filly sprinters nor the $100,000 Lost Code for 3-year-old male sprinters drew much of a field. There are seven in the Meafara, which is a more substantive race than the Lost Code, which got only six entries. City Dweller, who last raced for a $100,000 claiming tag, could go off as the favorite in the Lost Code, but the one to beat might be Celluloid Hero, a sprint stakes winner earlier this year at Oaklawn.

Trainer Greg Gilchrist and owner Harry Aleo of Lost in the Fog fame enter likely favorite Victorina in the Meafara.

* Fifteen Rounds, Chicago's best sprinter, worked six furlongs in 1:15 here Tuesday and is scheduled to make his next start on April 15 in the $400,000 Commonwealth Breeders' Cup at Keeneland, trainer Christine Janks said.

Fifteen Rounds, who won the Arlington Sprint last summer, scored a decisive victory in a high-end allowance race here last month in this first start of 2006. Janks said he was pleased with his work Tuesday.

"I'm always trying to get him to relax," she said. "That's the whole key with him."

* While Saturday's racing will be by far the best so far at this meet, there is no real feature here on Friday's late-afternoon program. A pair of entry-level Illinois-bred allowance races highlight a nine-race card.