Given the colt's Chicago connections, it's not surprising that Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert would send Midnight Hawk to the $500,000 Illinois Derby (gr. III) at Hawthorne Race Course April 19. As for his plans from there on out, you'll have to read between the lines.
The 3-year-old son of champion sprinter Midnight Lute is the definite class of eight entered for the 1 1/8-mile Illinois Derby, which goes as race 9 with an approximate post of 5:42 p.m. CDT. Co-owned by Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville and Atlanta Falcons offensive line coach Mike Tice, along with Hill 'n' Dale Equine Holdings and breeder Mike Pegram, Midnight Hawk has already earned enough points (52) to qualify for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
The Illinois Derby, mostly due to politics over racing dates between Churchill Downs and Hawthorne, was not included when the new system was put into place by Churchill last year, nor does it award points this season. For that reason and because of the timing of the race, run two weeks before the Kentucky Derby, it is considered more of a logical prep for the May 17 Preakness Stakes (gr. I).
At the beginning of the season Midnight Hawk came straight off his debut maiden win to take the Sham Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita Park, but he hasn't been back to the winner's circle since then. He comes into the Illinois Derby off a runner-up finish in the March 23 Sunland Derby (gr. III) and was second in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) behind buzz horse California Chrome and third in the Robert B. Lewis (gr. II) won by Candy Boy.
While Baffert has not officially withdrawn Midnight Hawk from Kentucky Derby participation, it would not fit his usual pattern to wheel a runner back into the Run for the Roses in 14 days. Publicly, he's sticking to his "one race at a time" mantra for now, and sends Martin Garcia in to get the mount from post 3. Midnight Hawk is the 4-5 favorite on the morning line.
One to watch in this spot is Lane's End Racing's late-blooming Class Leader, a half brother to multiple grade I winner Student Council . The Smart Strike colt ran poorly in his Churchill debut in October, then went to the sidelines until this February. He is 2-for-2 this season with tidy victories at a mile and 70 yards at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, the latter by a length March 13. James Graham gets the mount for trainer Neil Howard from the outside post.
A Bellamy Road colt owned by WinStar Farm, King Cyrus has been highly regarded by his connections but has not rewarded thus far, with an eighth in the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) due to a wide trip last year and a seventh last time out in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II). Pletcher adds blinkers this start for the stakes-placed runner who finished second in the Smooth Air at Calder Casino & Race Course in early March.
Global Strike, a Stonestreet Smart Strike homebred, was sixth in the Sunland Derby after breaking his maiden at the Illinois Derby distance at Gulfstream Feb. 22.
The Illinois Derby and the $150,000 Sixty Sails (gr. III) for fillies and mares are both parts of a live local broadcast on WGN Television from 5 to 6 p.m. CDT. Additionally, WGN Radio 720 AM will be broadcasting from Hawthorne, along with TVG Network.
$500,000 Illinois Derby (gr. III, Race 9, approximate post 5:42 p.m. CDT), 3YOs, 1 1/8 miles (dirt)
PP, Horse, Jockey, Trainer, Odds
1. Dynamic Impact (KY), M. Mena, M E Casse, 6-1
2. A Step Ahead (IL), C.A. Emigh, C M Block, 20-1
3. Midnight Hawk (KY), M. Garcia, B Baffert, 4-5
4. Irish You Well (KY), C. Hill, W M Catalano, 20-1
5. King Cyrus (KY), R. Napravnik, T A Pletcher, 8-1
6. Emmett Park (KY), L. A. Wydick, R J Pincins, 20-1
7. Global Strike (KY), T. Thornton, T A Pletcher, 15-1
8. Class Leader (KY), J. Graham, N J Howard, 5-1
Equipment Changes: 5—King Cyrus—Blinkers On