04/01/2003 1:00AM

Will a star be born in Illinois Derby?


STICKNEY, Ill. - The purse is $500,000, and a deep field of about 11 is expected to start. Saturday's Grade 2 Illinois Derby could be a fine race, but can it hold a candle to last year's soap opera?

The 2002 Illinois Derby had a top Kentucky Derby contender, Repent, as the favorite, but it was War Emblem who scored an emphatic victory that led to his private purchase by The Thoroughbred Corp. and wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The Kentucky Derby win netted War Emblem a $1 million bonus tied to the Illinois Derby. His previous owner, Russell Reineman, and the Thoroughbred Corp. haggled for months over the bonus before reaching a settlement.

The race venue has shifted about a hundred yards this year, as the closing of Sportsman's Park has forced the Derby to move to Hawthorne Race Course. Gone, too, is the $1 million bonus, and, perhaps not coincidentally, the presence of any top-flight Kentucky Derby hopefuls. Instead, the Derby will showcase second-tier 3-year-olds trying to run their way into the Triple Crown.

The three favorites come from both coasts and the Midwest: Alysweep flies here Wednesday from New York. Ten Most Wanted arrived last weekend from Southern California. And on Tuesday, Lone Star Sky was traveling on a van from New Orleans to Chicago. Alysweep easily won the Gotham Stakes in his last start, while Lone Star Sky was fourth in the Louisiana Derby, and Ten Most Wanted ran third in the El Camino Real Derby.

Alysweep and Ten Most Wanted both turned in their final works for the Illinois Derby on Tuesday. With jockey Richard Migliore up, Alysweep went five furlongs in 59.78 seconds, the fastest of 21 works at the distance Tuesday at the Belmont Park training track.

"He needed to do something," said trainer Patrick Reynolds. "He threw a cross at him and he knew how to make him finish."

At Hawthorne, Ten Most Wanted worked a relatively easy half-mile in 49.80 seconds. Jockey Larry Sterling rode Ten Most Wanted in the work, but Pat Day is booked to ride Ten Most Wanted on Saturday.

"I just told him to go off easy and come home strong," said Amy Dollase, who is overseeing Ten Most Wanted's training here for her father, trainer Wally Dollase. "He got what he needed out of it."

Lone Star Sky had his major work for the race last week, but before shipping out of Fair Grounds went an easy half-mile on Monday before boarding a van on Tuesday.

"He went really well," trainer Tom Amoss said. "I really feel like we have a confident and happy horse right now.'

Several other shippers are expected to run, including Atfirst Blush, Cherokee's Boy, Foufa's Warrior, Fund of Funds, and LX Commander.

Trainer Wesley Ward also confirmed Tuesday that Runnin' on Nitro, an impressive allowance winner at Gulfstream Park, would fly here from Florida on Thursday.

"He had an exceptional work last week and he's doing great right now,' Ward said.

Out of the race is Catalissa, who came down with a minor illness.

"We'll get him over it and look for another spot," said trainer Mike Stidham.

- additional reporting by David Grening