California Runners Conquer Hawthorne's Graded Stakes

STICKNEY/CICERO -- The sun shone, the band played, and far more people in spring suits and Derby hats graced the Hawthorne apron than on any day all year.  Today's ten-race card featured the only two graded stakes of the spring meet at Hawthorne, the Illinois Derby (GIII) for three-year-olds and the Sixty Sails Handicap (GIII) for fillies and mares three and up.  Both races covered nine furlongs on the dirt, both races drew a host of shippers, and both races resulted in mild upsets by west coast shippers.

Sixty Sails Handicap: YAHILWA Gets Back on the Beam

Only five runners saw the starter for the first of two graded stakes at Hawthorne, the Grade Three $150,000 Sixty Sails Handicap.  Older females here traveled nine furlongs on the fast dirt track.  The expected speed of the race came to fruition with PARC MONCEAU on the lead from the bell, with reasonable clock times of :24.70 for the opening quarter, :49.11 for the opening half, and 1:13.65 for the three-quarters.  PARC MONCEAU was guided to the rail during the intermediate stages, but she began to lose steam in the stretch.  AWESOME FLOWER, tracking at the rail from the opening bell, made an inside-outside move in the stretch.  Despite an exchange of bumps with stablemate KETEL TWIST, AWESOME FLOWER was cutting into the dwindling lead of PARC MONCEAU.

Sixty Sails Handicap

Yahilwa earns her first graded stakes score in the G3 Sixty Sails.

While AWESOME FLOWER made the inside-outside move, YAHILWA was entering the scene as well.  She stumbled at the start of the Sixty Sails and was guided to second position during the intermediate stages of the race, put in striking position of YAHILWA.  And when PARC MONCEAU threw in the towel in the stretch, YAHILWA was in full flight between runners.  The lead became hers inside the eighth pole, and she crossed the finish in front by two and a half of lengths.  Elvis Trujillo and James Cassidy came west from California to take down her share of the $150,000 pot for D.P. Racing's YAHILWA. Final time was 1:51.13 for the nine furlongs for the five-year-old mare by Medaglia d'Oro out of a Smart Strike mare.  She was the 2-1 second choice in wagering, the recipient of late money wagered on her.  She returned $6.40 to win.

7-10 favorite AWESOME FLOWER reported home second in the Sixty Sails, her inside-outside move getting her second money.  She was a nose to the better of KETEL TWIST.  PARC MONCEAU faded to fourth while SEA SHADOW was fifth and last.

Winning rider Elvis Trujillo after the race described his trip to Picks & Ponderings, saying how “the horse broke in front.  You can go, but if somebody goes on the lead, you can sit down behind.  It’s my choice.  She stumbled a bit coming out of the gate, and I tried to save the horse again today.”

Winning trainer James Cassidy mentioned how YAHILWA "has run hard a lot of times.  And her least two races were below what I expected.  But she's got a true nine furlong pedigree.  She's a grinder."  Cassidy was not concerned over the stumble at the race, saying how it was a blessing in disguise for YAHILWA.  The Sixty Sails went on the radar for YAHILWA as the Sixty Sails "was a little light.  Why don't we try Chicago?  We don't have to face Beholder."

When asked about a future race, Cassidy said how "there's nothing [at home] until the G3 Adoration [where she was second last year].  We're looking a race in Maryland." Said race is likely the May 15 G3 Allaire Du Pont Distaff Stakes on Black-Eyed Susan Day - the Friday of Preakness week.

The one dollar 1-2 exacta of YAHILWA and AWESOME FLOWER returned $5.30.  The twenty-cent 1-2-5 trifecta of YAHILWA, AWESOME FLOWER, and KETEL TWIST yielded $4.24.  Twenty-cent 1-2-5-3 superfectas with PARC MONCEAU in the fourth slot paid out $6.26 to winning ticket holders. --PM

Illinois Derby: Bob Baffert and WHISKEY TICKET turn the tables

Last year, trainer Bob Baffert brought Midnight Hawk to the Illinois Derby.  His attempt to win his first Illinois Derby fell just short, as his Midnight Hawk finished just a nose behind Mark Casse's Dynamic Impact.  Baffert and Casse both returned this year for another try in Illinois' biggest three-year-old race.  Baffert had one entry, WHISKEY TICKET, advancing to stakes company after a maiden win last month.  Casse had two bites at the apple: the more seasoned frontrunner KANTUNE and the up-and-coming closer CONQUEST CURLINATE.

This year's Grade III Illinois Derby drew nine entries, though only eight started because trainer Larry Rivelli scratched Illinois-bred speedster LEWYS VAPORIZER on race day.  The early money concentrated on two West Coast horses: CROSS THE LINE and WHISKEY TICKET.  CROSS THE LINE, fifth behind Dortmund last out in the Santa Anita Derby (GI), was 9/5 early and settled to 6/5 by post time.  WHISKEY TICKET, Baffert's charge, stayed around 2/1.  They were always the choices of the public; the next shortest odds were on CONQUEST CURLINATE, who went off at 6.9/1.

Despite the scratch, the early pace stayed sharp for a nine-furlong race.  A. ROD AGAIN, KANTUNE, and CROSS THE LINE all sent to the front early, with CROSS THE LINE taking the lead as the field made its way into the first turn.  WHISKEY TICKET dropped in to track the leading trio, letting about three lengths open up in front of him.  The early fractions clicked off sharply: the quarter in 23.40, the half in 46.89.  Down the backstretch, rider Florent Geroux put CROSS THE LINE under a hold, easing him off the pace being set by A. ROD AGAIN and KANTUNE.  WHISKEY TICKET took that as his cue, and began to get closer to the leaders.  KANTUNE dropped out of it entering the far turn, and WHISKEY TICKET made his advance on A. ROD AGAIN.  PHENOMENAL PHOENIX made his move from just outside WHISKEY TICKET; VERRACO moved in from wider yet.  CONQUEST CURLINATE moved from last, widest of all.  As the field turned for home, WHISKEY TICKET opened up a length and a half on the field with a furlong to go.  Neither PHENOMENAL PHOENIX nor VERRACO  got quite far enough to threaten, but one horse did.  CONQUEST CURLINATE charged down the centre of the track, while WHISKEY TICKET gamely forged on inside.

Unlike last year, the wire came just too early for the Mark Casse trainee.  Baffert's WHISKEY TICKET held on to beat CONQUEST CURLINATE by a nose.  He stopped the clock in 1:50.82 for the nine furlongs.  PHENOMENAL PHOENIX checked in four lengths back, an even third.  VERRACO, nine and a half lengths behind the top two, nosed out favoured CROSS THE LINE for fourth.  PRIVATE PROSPECT, A. ROD AGAIN, and KANTUNE completed the order of finish.

WHISKEY TICKET holds off a charging CONQUEST CURLINATE to win the 2015 Illinois Derby.

WHISKEY TICKET (inside) holds off a charging CONQUEST CURLINATE to win the 2015 Illinois Derby.

WHISKEY TICKET, a three-year-old son of Ghostzapper out of the Gilded Time mare Honey Grove, is trained by Bob Baffert and owned by Karl Watson, Michael Pegram, and Paul Weitman.  He made his stakes debut in the Illinois Derby, and just his second career start.  He broke his maiden on debut on March 19 with Martin Pedroza aboard; Pedroza came out to Hawthorne to ride WHISKEY TICKET again today.  This race was was just the second of this colt's career, and his stakes debut.  He won the $240,000 winner's share of the $400,000 purse, upping his career earnings to $273,600.

WHISKEY TICKET was not nominated for the Triple Crown; in an interview, with Picks and Ponderings, trainer Bob Baffert noted that "He's still a bit behind.  He's still learning.  We're thinking of the Derby races in the Midwest [such as the Iowa Derby (GIII) and the Indiana Derby (GII)] for him."

Baffert told rider Martin Pedroza, "Just let the speed go.  Ride him the way you feel."  Before the race, Pedroza felt like WHISKEY TICKET was "a little anxious...I galloped him a little bit just to take the edge off and it worked."  In the race, WHISKEY TICKET "broke a little sluggish but recovered right away.  He didn't seem to mid the dirt too much.  He didn't like it at first but he got used to it.  But, I didn't want to get too much dirt on him so I put him in the clear.  I didn't want somebody to come alongside of me and box me in."

"Both horses ran hard to the end," observed Shaun Bridgmohan, rider of second-place CONQUEST CURLINATE.  "He [CONQUEST CURLINATE] takes a little encouragement.  He's a big kid that's still learning but at least he's going in the right direction."  Ernie Semersky of Chicago-area owners Conquest Stables agreed that CONQUEST CURLINATE is growing into himself.  "He's maturing," said Semersky.  "You can see by his physique, the horse is something else.  He's not the least bit tired."  Semersky stated that Conquest had not decided where their Ontario-bred colt would race next.

WHISKEY TICKET, the bettors' second choice, paid $6.40 to win.  The exacta over CONQUEST CURLINATE returned a flat $20.00 for each dollar bet.  The $0.20 trifecta with PHENOMENAL PHOENIX slotted in third returned $19.26 for each $0.20 base bet.  Finally, the superfecta with VERRACO fourth came back with $77.42 for each $0.20 on the combination.  -- NN

Stakes recap authors are denoted above by initials, PM for Paul Mazur and NN for Nicolle Neulist.  All photos courtesy of Four Footed Fotos.

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