04/01/2003 12:00AM

Runnin' on Nitro to Illinois Derby

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Trainer Wesley Ward's primary goal when he shipped Runnin' on Nitro, a promising 3-year-old, to south Florida from his Southern California base nearly two months ago was Saturday's $250,000 Aventura Stakes. But less than a week out from the race, Ward has decided to pass the Aventura in favor of the Grade 3 Illinois Derby the same afternoon at Hawthorne Park.

"It just looks like there's going to be too much speed in the Aventura," Ward said from his base at the Palm Meadows training center Tuesday morning. "There are four or five others going into the Aventura with the same kind of speed my horse has. The way the Illinois Derby is shaping up, I think I'll be in front in that race."

Runnin' on Nitro won two of his last three starts, his lone setback a fourth-place finish behind Kafwain in Santa Anita's Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes on Feb. 1. He was an impressive five-length winner of his local debut under first-level allowance conditions one month later.

"My horse is doing excellent and I expect him to run a really big race wherever he starts," Ward said. "But it doesn't make much sense to run him here and have him get caught up in a speed battle."

One of those speed horses Ward was referring to is Valid Video. A gelded son of Valid Wager, Valid Video has won 4 of 5 career starts at distances ranging from five to seven furlongs, including both the Sunshine Millions Dash and the OBS Sprint Stakes this winter.

Valid Video worked a half-mile in 51.20 seconds at the Classic Mile Training Center in Ocala Tuesday, after which trainer Dennis Manning confirmed he is a definite starter for the Aventura.

"He's bred to be a sprinter, but we think with his running style and attitude he'll get two turns," Manning said. "We want to find out if he will go long once and for all, and the Aventura looks like the perfect spot being at a mile and one sixteenth. If it turns out he's just a sprinter we'll make the $300,000 race at Calder [Carry Back July 12] our objective. If he does get the two turns Saturday then obviously we'll look for other avenues."

Manning also said that his other speedy 3-year-old, Grand Hombre, worked a half-mile in 51 seconds at Classic Mile on Tuesday. Grand Hombre ran six furlongs in 1:08.66, winning his career debut by four lengths here March 8. Manning said he is undecided as to Grand Hombre's next start.

Take Charge Lady to Oaklawn?

Trainer Ken McPeek said he is still leaning toward shipping Take Charge Lady out Thursday morning to take on Eclipse Award winner Azeri in Saturday's Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park, though he is very dissatisfied with the weights for the race.

"The weights for the Apple Blossom are ridiculous," McPeek said. "Azeri wins the Breeders' Cup Distaff by five lengths and we get only five pounds from her. But my filly has been working great, runs well off the shelf, and if we're ever going to beat Azeri it will probably be the first time."

McPeek's other option would be to keep Take Charge Lady here for Friday's $75,000 Banshee Breeze Handicap in which she would be the odds-on favorite.

Sky Mesa works half-mile

Donna Ward, wife and assistant of trainer John Ward Jr., reports that Sky Mesa worked a half-mile in 50 seconds and change last weekend at the Palm Beach Training Center. It was the undefeated colt's first workout since injuring his foot in a training hours mishap last month.

"He's like having a little child," Ward said. "Every time you look out the kitchen window he's jumping off the garage or out of a tree house. I think we X-rayed everything from the tip of his ears to the bottom of the feet after this last episode just to make sure we weren't missing anything. He was just very, very sore. Fortunately, I don't think I lost much in fitness and I was very pleased with the first work."

Ward said she plans to work Sky Mesa again later this week before shipping back to Kentucky Sunday.

Calder's Hall of Fame to induct four

Four new members will be inducted into Calder's Hall of Fame Saturday, April 26, the second day of the 2003-2004 Calder meet.

The new inductees are Chaposa Springs, trainer Marty Wolfson, owner/breeder John Franks, and former jockey Mary Russ.

Chaposa Springs won 12 stakes races while under the tutelage of Wolfson, including the Grade 1 Test and the Ballerina at Saratoga.

Wolfson, the son of Harbor View Farm owner Louis Wolfson, has been a fixture on the Calder circuit for nearly two decades and is among the all-time leading trainers in races and stakes won at the track. Along with Chaposa Springs, his best horses included The Vid, Forever Whirl, and Mr. Angel.

Franks is a four-time Eclipse Award winner who raced numerous stakes winners including the Calder-based Fig Fest, J j'sdream, Kiss a Native, and Blissful Kiss.

Russ was the first woman to win a jockeys title at a major race meet, capturing the 1982 Tropical at Calder title. She was also the first woman to win a Grade 1 race - the 1982 Widener Handicap aboard Lord Darnley - and the first to win $1 million in purses in a single season.