04/07/2006 11:00PM

Sweetnorthernsaint dominates Illinois Derby

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Sweetnorthernsaint wins the Illinois Derby on Saturday at Hawthorne Race Course.

STICKNEY, Ill. - Sweetnorthernsaint finished 12th last summer in his career debut. His second start, months later, came in a maiden claiming race. And now he is headed to Churchill Downs looking like a legitimate contender for the Kentucky Derby.

Sweetnorthernsaint came to Hawthorne Race Course for the Grade 2, $500,000 rather than staying closer to home in Maryland for the Wood Memorial in New York, and he annihilated a decent group of horses on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

Pressing a moderate pace from his wide post, Sweeetnorthernsaint made the lead past the quarter pole, opened daylight in upper stretch - and then he really started moving. At the finish he had 9 1/4 lengths on second-place Mister Triester, with northern California sensation Cause to Believe another length behind in third. Lewis Michael finished fourth, while the decent pair of Racketeer and My Golden Song were left far behind in sixth and seventh.

"I guess our plans are, if he's doing well in four weeks, we'd have to be a part of it," said 39-year-old trainer Mike Trombetta, who won the first Grade 2 race of his 20-year training career.

"It," of course, is the Kentucky Derby, and after running nine furlongs in 1:49.82 - a very strong time over a racetrack that has been dull and laboring for weeks - Sweetnorthernsaint ($4.60) is well deserving of a slot in the race. After beating up on inferior competition in his first three starts for Trombetta, who received the horse and gelded him shortly after his career debut last August, Sweetnorthernsaint finished third by less than a length in the March 18 Gotham Stakes, suffering his first loss on dirt, but showing grit with a late move in the final yards.

"That last time, we made a man out of him," said jockey Kent Desormeaux, who won his third Illinois Derby. "I really had to get after him there. Today, he was waiting for me to do something."

Sweetnorthernsaint had post 10, but quickly established position going into the first turn as Mister Triester, whose connections intended to take him back, went an opening quarter-mile in 23.52 seconds and a half in a relatively slow 48.06. Desormeaux merely bided his time in second - "I was only a pilot," he said - and Sweetnorthernsaint took the lead as he pleased.

Outfinished was second choice Cause to Believe, who was placed surprisingly close to the early leaders, and whose chances were hurt by the lack of real speed.

"We don't think there was enough pace to set the race up for us," trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said.

* Victorina ($3.80) rallied from just off the pace and easily won the $112,400 Meafara Stakes. Ridden by Russell Baze for trainer Greg Gilchrist and owner Harry Aleo, Victorina made her move in upper stretch, quickly sprinting to a decisive margin. She beat Grandelena by 3 3/4 lengths and was timed in 1:11.14 for six furlongs.

* City Dweller ($3.20) got away with an easy early lead and held off late-runner Celluloid Hero to win the $109,850 Lost Code Breeders' Cup.