03/30/2004 12:00AM

Suave may be hitting stride for Illinois Derby

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CHICAGO - It was last July 3 when a 2-year-old colt named Suave debuted in a six-furlong maiden race at Churchill Downs, and the reasons that he was in no way ready to win then are the same ones that have landed him a spot Saturday in the Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne.

Suave finished 10th in his career debut, and he did not set the world afire in subsequent races. The races were too short, and Suave was too inexperienced. It took him five tries to win a maiden race and four more to break through his first allowance condition, but when he did that, March 13 at Gulfstream Park, it was in noteworthy fashion. Suave beat a decent group by nearly four lengths, winning at nine furlongs, the Illinois Derby distance.

In this weekend's wide-open affair, that makes Suave one of the ones. About 10 others are expected for Saturday's derby, which produced Ten Most Wanted last year and the Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem two seasons ago. Two locals appear overmatched, and the others - coming from all directions - are difficult to evaluate.

Pollard's Vision's third in the Louisiana Derby might earn him the favorite's role, but he could be vulnerable at nine furlongs. The New York-based Song of the Sword is unbeaten but has run just three times, and never in a stakes. Kilgowan won the El Camino Real Derby by a half-length: What that means is hard to say. He and two others coming out of the race, O.K. Mikie (fourth) and Skipaslew (seventh), are expected to start here. Other probables are Judiths Wild Rush, Farnum Alley, Pure American, and White Mountain Boy.

So, why not Suave? By A.P. Indy and out of the Grade 1 route winner Urbane, Suave is bred to run long, but happened to be forward enough early in his 2-year-old year to debut before he was ready to show his best. He has won just two of nine starts because of immaturity and poor luck, according to Paul McGee, who trains Suave for Jay Emm Ess Stable.

"I don't know how much it shows up in his form, but he's had plenty of bad luck," McGee said. "Some of his races don't look as big as they were."

Suave came out of a Churchill maiden win (he beat the promising colt Breakaway) with tender feet, and McGee said he "babied" the colt into the Gulfstream meet. Suave needed his first run there, then narrowly missed when second to the good colt Mustanfar. He regressed next out with a fifth in a highly rated allowance race before bouncing back with the big recent win.

"The last race of his was impressive by anyone's standards," McGee said.

In a $500,000 race where no horse stands out, that makes Suave worth watching.