The road to the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) runs through...Cicero, Illinois? That's the untested theory that has Dogwood Stable chief Cot Campbell and trainer Todd Pletcher scratching their heads after their late-developing colt Distilled rolled to a convincing 1 3/4-length victory in the $500,000 Illinois Derby (gr. II) on April 7.
"You always want to give yourself a couple of days to cool down and analyze it and not get too choked up on it," Campbell said after the chestnut son of Hennessy overcame a stumbling start and made every pole a winning one in the nine-furlong test. "But any time you win a race like this this close to the Kentucky Derby, you'd be an idiot not to consider that race."
Sent off at odds-on despite the presence of Dream Run, who had made a big impression with a troubled fourth-place effort in the Florida Derby (gr. I) in his previous start, Distilled made it look easy. Not bad, considering it was his first stakes. He had made only two trips to the winner's circle in nine previous races, earning less than half of the $165,000 Campbell paid privately to Brian Rice for the colt after he failed to meet his reserve at Keeneland's April sale 2-year-olds in training last year.
Distilled's seven Sportsman's opponents did not include Percy Hope or Me and Thee, who scratched in favor of the Lone Star Derby. In Texas, Percy Hope won the Lone Star Derby just 15 minutes after the "official" sign went up in the Illinois Derby. In addition to Dream Run, Distilled squared off against Saint Damien, winner of the OBS Championship Stakes in his last start.
Distilled, who had finished second in Monarchos' eye-popping allowance victory that preceded his Florida Derby score, blazed the opening quarter in :22.44. The quick pace was fine with jockey Mike Smith.
"I knew I was moving pretty fast, but there's such a strong tailwind (nearly 30 mph) down the backside that the times were deceiving," said Smith, who guided Distilled through a half in :46.85 and six furlongs in 1:11.06 around the seven-furlong oval. The track was rebuilt last year to accommodate an outer auto speedway. "Turning for home, I wanted to get him running before the wind hit us. I asked him to pick it up, and he picked it up great. I knew they'd have to really pick it up to get by us."
Saint Damien, who'd bided his time in mid-pack, allowed Dream Run to take the first crack at Distilled. But Dream Run could not stay with him, and was going nowhere fast by the time Lonnie Meche pushed the button on Saint Damien.
"When we straightened up for home, I thought I had him," said Meche, who was forced wide on the tight clubhouse turn before mounting his rally. "Then my horse ranged up there and he found more in the tank. He was able to hold me off, but my horse ran a tremendous race."
Helen Pitts, assistant to Saint Damien's trainer, Ken McPeek, wasn't ready to give up her Kentucky Derby dreams after the runner-up effort. She noted the wind may have cost him the race. "You never know; it may very well have," she said. "Turning for home, the wind was blowing right in his face."
Dream Run's trainer, Paul McGee, made no excuses for his colt's third-place finish. "It was a good horse that won the race. There just wasn't any passing going on down the stretch."
While McGee didn't have immediate plans for Dream Run, Campbell was sounding like a man with Derby dreams for Distilled, whose three-investor partnership is Paul Oreffice, former chairman of Dow Chemical, Carl Findlay, and Guy Paschal.
"We don't want to go unless we really belong, and maybe we do belong," he said. "We'll evaluate that by next week."
In looking at the running time of 1:51.37, the slowest fast-track Illinois Derby since Sportsman's last expansion in 1992, Distilled's connections might be disheartened. But it's hard to measure the impact of the wind on the time. More important is beating a colt of the quality of Dream Run by four lengths.
Campbell outlined two possible scenarios for Distilled's campaign. "One would be to duck the really heavy heads and kind of bounce around and go to the Ohio Derby (gr. II), that kind of thing. That would be one route. The other is to say we should go to Louisville and run in the Kentucky Derby, which is one of the great experiences that a human being can have. If we do evaluate his performance and find it competitive, that's what we ought to do."
Campbell finds the Derby experience less taxing than back in the days when he had to secure seating and accommodations for the 28 investors in Summer Squall. The Dogwood founder has nearly 15 horses in training with Pletcher, almost a third of Campbell's stable. Together they've enjoyed success with the likes of Trippi, Impeachment, Gone North, and Gone Fishin.
George Weaver, Pletcher's assistant, saw Distilled's sire, Hennessy, up close and personal when both he and Pletcher worked for Hennessy's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas. But Weaver, who saddled Distilled at Sportsman's, said the colt was green when he entered training and shared none of his sire's precocious tendencies. In other respects, though, Weaver sees Distilled as his sire's spitting image. Craig B. Singer bred Hennessy to Wood of Binn to produce Distilled a year after the dam produced Three Wonders. Three Wonders, Distilled's 4-year-old half-brother by Storm Cat, ran second in a Keeneland turf allowance a half-hour before Distilled won the Illinois Derby.
Weaver said he's convinced Distilled got everything out of the Derby prep he needed, adding, "The horse is getting good at the right time, and we're extremely happy. Each race is a stepping-stone, and I'm sure this will be plenty enough if they decide to run him in the Kentucky Derby. Since we've stretched him out, his races have improved. That's what you want to see him do at this time of year.
"He's a route horse with dangerous speed. That doesn't necessarily mean that he needs the lead."
This year Sportsman's Park moved its showcase event for sophomores to a spot on the racing calendar where it might serve as a springboard for horsemen with roses on their minds, rather than the traditional position between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes (gr. I). Weaver, admitting he doesn't know a lot about the race, which was run for the 44th time this year, approves of the positioning.
"It should add to the prestige of the race, not having to run it in the shadow of the Kentucky Derby," he said.
So would a big effort from Distilled--or one of his Illinois Derby opponents--in the Run for the Roses.