2017 Illinois Derby Day Stakes Preview

All spring, Picks and Ponderings wandered around the country for three-year-old races.  This weekend, there’s no need: after all, the Illinois Derby returns to our backyard.  Once again, the race offers no Kentucky Derby points, so do not expect any of the Illinois Derby runners to progress to Louisville.  However, it would be no surprise to follow these Illinois Derby runners along to the Preakness, or along the circuit of Grade 2 and Grade 3 midwestern Derbies through the summer.

In addition to the Illinois Derby, the card features a pair of sprint stakes for statebreds three-and-up.  The Robert S. Molaro Handicap is unrestricted by sex; the Third Chance Handicap is the fillies’ and mares’ complement.  Both stakes feature one major change from 2015, when they were last run.  They used to be six-furlong contests, but the 2017 edition will cover a bit more ground: six and a half furlongs.

Nicolle Neulist provides selections and analysis of all three stakes races on Saturday’s card at Hawthorne.  Below the previews, a chart shows both Nicolle Neulist’s and Paul Mazur’s picks for Saturday’s trio of stakes at 35th and Cicero.

The preview of the Illinois Derby is published jointly with ThoroFan Handicapper’s Corner.

Saturday, April 21: Hawthorne Racecourse

Race 5: Illinois Derby (G3), three-year-olds, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 6:17pm CDT

After a one-year hiatus, the Illinois Derby returns to Hawthorne for its 59th running.  Graded since the advent of American graded stakes in 1973, it has been a Grade 3 for most of its history, though it did carry a Grade 2 from 1997 through 2009.  The race has produced one Classic winner: War Emblem (2002), who won the Illinois Derby for local trainer Frank Springer.  Subsequently purchased by The Thoroughbred Corporation and sent to Bob Baffert, he went on to win the Kentucky Derby (G1), Preakness (G1), and Haskell (G1).  Another of its most eminent winners came earlier in its history.  In addition to winning the Illinois Derby at Aurora Downs, Mata Hari (1934) also beat her own sex here in the Arlington Lassie Stakes at two and the Illinois Oaks at three.  She also beat males in Kentucky, winning both the Breeders’ Futurity and the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at age two.

On the breeding side, the true star to emerge from the Illinois Derby was Smarten (1979).  Smarten produced Canadian champion sophomore filly Classy ‘n Smart — who herself produced both leading sire Smart Strike and Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) winner Dance Smartly.

Midnight Hawk, owned in part by Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, misses by a nose to Dynamic Impact in the 2014 Illinois Derby.

This year’s Illinois Derby drew a field of seven to contest for a $250,000 purse.  The field slants toward emerging sophomores: none of the seven are graded stakes winners yet, only John Battaglia Memorial IT’S YOUR NICKEL has won in stakes company yet.

The only graded stakes placed horse in the field is HEDGE FUND, from the barn of Todd Pletcher.  Todd Pletcher knows how to win this race; he has four victories in it already.  As for HEDGE FUND, he finished third in a race that has graded out well so far: the Sunland Derby (G3).  Winner Hence has not since race, but second-place Conquest Mo Money finished second in the Arkansas Derby (G1) last weekend, and fourth-place Irap upset the Blue Grass (G2) two weeks back.  HEDGE FUND set the pace in the Sunland Derby, a pace as hot as the burning New Mexico sun.  If he does not repeat that here, he should be tough.  And, there’s no reason he has to repeat that.  HEDGE FUND graduated just off the pace two back at Gulfstream, and could use that again.  As long as he settles off the pace (most likely set by STAND AND CHEER, though ST. LOUIE GUY could do it, too), he could be tough.

That said, HEDGE FUND may not be sufficiently profitable to merit the risk.  And, there is one horse with enough upside to appeal for the upset: MULTIPLIER.  MULTIPLIER comes in off a maiden win at Fair Grounds last out, in the third start of his career.  He has progressed from start to start.  And, though he is a closer in a race that does not appear likely to fall apart?  MULTIPLIER was able to get moving early enough to close into a softer pace last time out.  That matters — he has tables to turn on HOLLYWOOD HANDSOME, but the time they faced each other the track was sloppy.  It stands to be dry in the Illinois Derby.  And, though HOLLYWOOD HANDSOME ran on for fourth in the Louisiana Derby (G2) last out, he got some rabbit-inspired fireworks that will not happen at Hawthorne.

Though this will be a class test for MULTIPLIER, his first start against winners, trainer Brendan Walsh knows what he is doing.  After all, he has a 19% win rate with last out maiden winners, a 17% strike rate in graded stakes — and, a positive ROI in both situations.  The biggest question is whether MULTIPLIER will take to nine furlongs, as his dam is a Trippi mare who was herself a sprinter, and whose other progeny preferred going one turn.  But, he should be the price to bet he can.

MR. MISUNDERSTOOD comes into the Illinois Derby on a three-win streak, and he has progressed in each of those starts.  Though that streak started in claiming company at Fair Grounds, the next two wins both came against allowance-optional company over that same oval.  Surface, however, explains why this will be a class test for MR. MISUNDERSTOOD: two of his Fair Grounds victories came over turf, and the one win over dirt came in a wash-off over the slop.  But, like MULTIPLIER, MR. MISUNDERSTOOD has shown that even though he is a closer, he does not need a fiery pace to kick on and be a factor late.  Finally, the trainer inspires confidence.  Brad Cox wins with shippers at a 24% rate — in short, he doesn’t just send his horses for giggles.  If he thinks MR. MISUNDERSTOOD is rounding into good enough form to try the Illinois Derby, that opinion carries weight.



#2 HEDGE FUND (3/1)


Longshot:  Local trainer Scott Becker sends a pair here, both of whom have both Hawthorne form and form over some tougher winter circuits like Fair Grounds and Oaklawn.  ST. LOUIE GUY romped earlier this month at Hawthorne going two turns, but against far easier foes.  His classy form comes at one turn, and his pedigree screams it, too.  On the other hand, #4 STAND AND CHEER (8/1) stands a better chance of getting a mile and an eighth here.  The first time he tried two turns, in a maiden special weight at Hawthorne last fall, he won easily.  In his last two starts, he faced one-other-than company at Fair Grounds and Oaklawn.  He rounded out the exacta in both after setting the early pace.  He may well set the pace here: HEDGE FUND is probably better stalking, and ST. LOUIE GUY rated while routing last out.  Still, STAND AND CHEER is not one-way speed; he won his maiden race from a stalking spot, and had some solid underneath finishes off the pace last year as well.  With a pedigree a bit more suited for distance than his stablemate’s, STAND AND CHEER is the local longshot to use on your tickets.

Race 6: Robert S. Molaro Handicap, Illinois-breds, three-year-olds and up, six and a half furlongs on the dirt, post time 6:47pm CDT

Previously named the Chicagoland Handicap, this race was renamed in 2009 to honour Robert S. Molaro, a former Illinois state senator and state representative whose district, when he served, included Hawthorne Racecourse.  Molaro frequently sponsored and advocated for laws friendly for the horse racing industry while in office, and also sponsored an anti-horse-slaughter bill while in office.

Durable fan favourite River Bear won the Molaro three times in non-consecutive years: 2010, 2012, and finally a thrilling half-length victory in 2014 at age nine.  Polar Expedition, a multiple graded stakes winning millionaire who was a Chicago mainstay through the the 1990s, also got his picture taken after this race; he held favoured Prairie School at bay to win the 1995 edition of the Chicagoland Handicap.  From the breeding side, Wild Gambler (1998) still stands stud in Illinois at Indian Hills Farm.  He sired the ageless Smiling Gambler, who had a career year at eight and is working toward her nine-year-old bow.

Like its fillies’ complement, the Molaro has also been stretched from six furlongs to six and a half, and offers a $40,000 added purse.  The highweight, and the one to beat, is RECOUNT.  He holds his own in open stakes and stakes-quality allowances throughout the Midwest, and has gotten his picture taken both times he has paid a visit to 35th and Cicero.

Still, there are a couple questions about RECOUNT.  He has never tried six and a half, and has only once sealed the deal past six furlongs.  That was two years ago in the Bruce D Memorial Stakes, a one-turn mile over the Arlington main.  If he runs back to that, he will be well suited here; he rallied from off the pace there.  Still, the vast majority of RECOUNT’s recent form has him on the pace and he is a clear highweight in this field at 125 pounds.  The pace will be grueling here: LEWYS VAPORIZER, GONEGHOST and URBAN COOL need the lead, and CAITLINS ROAD ought to be prominent, too.  If there’s a proven closer at a price, this looks the place to take a shot.

Meet PURGING THE STONE.  He is no stranger to blowing up the tote in an Illinois-bred stakes; he won the 2013 Land of Lincoln at Hawthorne at 43/1 odds.  His best races stack up favourably with his foes here.  And, his running style is perfect for this race, as he tends to rally from midpack or even farther back.  He has only tried six and a half furlongs once, finishing fourth in a salty open allowance at Hawthorne in 2015.  PURGING THE STONE deserves another chance against this set of state-breds.  And, though he typically runs six furlongs, he has some form going two turns, suggesting he has stamina.  The layoff is a question — PURGING THE STONE has not raced since October — but, he has been able to fire against classy company coming first off a long winter lay.  If he comes back sharp again today, he should be running best late.

The third slot was a tough call between INFINITE MISCHIEF and SCITECH.  SCITECH is a bit more reliable as an off-pace type, but his race looks a stiff class test for the son of Pleasantly Perfect.  He is one to consider underneath, given his seven-furlong form and his horse-for-course tendencies, but this space has a bit more faith in the class of INFINITE MISCHIEF.  Though INFINITE MISCHIEF has usually been prominent in the pace, he has shown some ability to stalk — and should be the one from his barn sitting off the pace, given the catch-me-if-you-can style of his stablemate GONEGHOST.  INFINITE MISCHIEF also has a solid record over the course, three wins in three starts, and his breeding suggests the extra half-furlong should suit him well.



#5 RECOUNT (9/5)


Longshot:  #9 BRIAR’S GOLD (30/1) originally occupied this space, but scratched out of the race.  The longshot writer’s only other fancy is already the race’s top selection.

Race 7: Third Chance Handicap, Illinois-bred fillies and mares, three-year-olds and up, six and a half furlongs on the dirt, post time 7:14pm CDT

This race, run for the 40th time this year, currently takes its name from Third Chance: a 2008 Illinois-bred daughter of Kafwain who won stakes in Illinois from 2008 through 2010.  Trained by Jim DiVito and owned by former ABC7 anchor Ron Magers and insurance broker Robert Marcocchio, Third Chance was a stakes winner all three years she raced.  At age four, she won three: the Governor’s Lady Handicap and the Isaac Murphy Handicap against mares, and then the Addison Cammack Handicap against males.  Starting the following year, the Governor’s Lady Handicap was renamed for her.

Though the race took its current name from Third Chance, it seems almost criminal that it never took the name of Darley Dancer.  After all, the durable Play Fellow mare won the Governor’s Lady Handicap three times: 1993 through 1995, ages five through seven.  Perhaps the most notable runner in this race ran dead last in 1991: Lady Shirl.  One turn on the dirt was not Lady Shirl’s best game — but she went on to win the Modesty Handicap (G3), the Flower Bowl Invitational (G1), and the E. P. Taylor (G2) later that year.  Lady Shirl also proved her mettle in the breeding shed; she produced Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf winner Perfect Shirl, as well as multiple Grade 1 winner Shakespeare.

Previously a six-furlong race, the Third Chance Handicap now covers a distance of six and a half furlongs, and offers a $40,000 added purse.  The race drew no shortage of early zip: GO LADY JAY and EXQUISITE LADY both need to be on the front to do their best, and MY MERTIE, GAME TIME DECISION, and BELLA CARMELLA also typically show front-end zip.  If the track is playing fairly, it should set up nicely for a horse to motor in off the pace.

Few horses on this circuit run on late as reliably as KARLA WITH A K.  In eighteen starts over the Hawthorne main, she has five victories and another eight money finishes.  She also has some form over the six and a half furlong trip, with a win and a second in four starts.  KARLA WITH A K comes into this race in excellent form, too.  She held her own at Oaklawn all winter, and last out she won a six-furlong allowance-optional at Oaklawn with complete authority.  Though that victory came in the slop, her form on fast dirt stacks up against her foes here, too.  Finally, she gets back rider Santo Sanjur; Sanjur has ridden KARLA WITH A K often, and knows how to get the best from her.

The other threat to come rolling late is DANDY GAL.  DANDY GAL has shown excellent tactical versatility, with wins from right on the pace, stalking just off, or rallying from well off the early going.  Expect that off-pace style here.  Like KARLA WITH A K, DANDY GAL is also a well-proven horse for the Hawthorne course: four wins and two thirds in six tries.  One of those wins came at the same six and a half furlong trip as in the Third Chance.  Though it stands out a bit to see Carlos Marquez riding for trainer Scott Becker, there is precedent for him to ride DANDY GAL — Marquez rode her in an allowance at Hawthorne last October, and she posted a decisive victory.

For the third slot, this space gave a look to both GAME TIME DECISION and MY MERTIE.  Both horses have similar running styles: typically forward, but they have a stalking gear.  GAME TIME DECISION brings class and fitness from Oaklawn, but the question is distance.  At a likely short price, taking GAME TIME DECISION stretching out for the longest race of her career appeals a bit less than looking to a better proven extended-sprint horse.  That’s MY MERTIE.  MY MERTIE held her own against open stakes company at Tampa Bay Downs this winter.  She usually runs forward, but can sit a bit off the pace.  That should help; a fighting pair of GO LADY JAY and EXQUISITE LADY are a lot less likely to stay the distance than a happily galloping Spanish Concert, the Tampa whiz she was chasing around all winter.  Furthermore, MY MERTIE likes the distance.  She has tried six and a half furlongs five times, and never missed the board.  That includes a win and four third-place finishes.


#4 KARLA WITH A K (6/1)

#7 DANDY GAL (7/2)

#2 MY MERTIE (9/5)

Longshot:  #6 BELLA CARMELLA (12/1) is trying something new here — she has never gone six and a half furlongs before.  But, she has a strong record over the Hawthorne dirt: three starts and another seven money finishes in 11 tries.  The new dimension she showed last out also makes her attractive here.  Typically on or very close to the lead, BELLA CARMELLA sat nicely off the last last out and rallied to win a state-bred allowance on April 1.  If she can reprise that style in the Third Chance, and if she can get the last half-furlong, she has a chance to be involved late at a long price.


Below are selections from both Nicolle Neulist and Paul Mazur for the three stakes races on Saturday’s Hawthorne card.  This chart will be completed as we finish handicapping the races.


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