Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) winner Musket Man and Illinois-bred Giant Oak lead a wide-open field of 11 in the 52nd edition of the $500,000 Illinois Derby (gr. II) April 4 at Hawthorne Race Course. The winner’s share of $300,000 would be more than enough for a berth in the $2 million Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) May 2.
Also entered for the Illinois Derby, which will be run at 1 1/8 miles on dirt, are three from the barn of Todd Pletcher. The most notable is WinStar Farm’s Al Khali, who won an allowance race at the same distance last month at Gulfstream Park in his United States debut.
Trainer Michael Trombetta will also take his shot with Perfect Song, an impressive allowance winner at Laurel Park last out. Nowhere to Hide and Free Country, from the barns of Nick Zito and Ken McPeek, respectively, will try to rebound from off-the-board efforts in graded stakes company March 14.
The Illinois Derby is race 7 on the Hawthorne program and will go to post at 4:15 p.m. CDT.
Eric Fein and Vic Carlson’s Musket Man is the only graded stakes winner in the field. It came in the thrilling Tampa Bay Derby March 14 when the Yonaguska colt came with a huge run in the final sixteenth of a mile to nip Join in the Dance by a neck under Daniel Centeno. It was the fourth win in five career starts for Musket Man, who is trained by Derek Ryan.
A winner of the seven-furlong Pasco Stakes in January, Musket Man’s lone setback came in the Sam F. Davis (gr. III) Feb. 14 when finishing third. He has earned $287,600 from his starts. The dark bay colt tuned up for the April 4 race with a bullet five-furlong move in :59.80 March 28 at Tampa Bay.
Eibar Coa was named to ride Musket Man, who will break from post 8 and was installed as the 7-2 morning-line favorite. He was bred in Kentucky by Jim E. Nelson and Sergio De Sousa, and is out of the Fortunate Prospect mare Fortuesque.
Big things have been expected from Virginia Tarra Trust’s homebred Giant Oak (9-2) ever since finishing runner-up in the Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) at Churchill Downs last fall, but the son of Giant's Causeway has failed in his two starts as a 3-year-old. Giant Oak put together mild rallies in both the Risen Star (gr. III) and Louisiana Derby (gr. II) at Fair Grounds after being far back early on, but wound up finishing fifth and fourth, respectively.
Trainer Chris Block has assigned a new rider for the fourth consecutive start, as Shaun Bridgmohan will get the mount on Giant Oak. They will break from post 2. Block said he could scratch Giant Oak in favor of next week’s Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland if the track comes up wet at Hawthorne April 4.
Though bred in Kentucky and a 2007 Keeneland yearling purchase, Al Khali began his racing career in Peru where he won two of three starts, his last by seven lengths in allowance company last October. The son of Medaglia d'Oro worked well since being added to Pletcher’s Florida barn over the winter, and it showed March 6 when winning a 1 1/8-mile allowance test by three-quarters of a length.
Al Khali turned in another nice work March 28 at Palm Meadows, getting five furlongs in 1:00.85, the third best of 42 that day. Cornelio Velazquez will get the mount for the first time.
Pletcher’s other two entrants are coming off of wins as well. Stronach Stables’ homebred Lord Justice won his 3-year-old debut March 6 on Aqueduct's inner track, taking a 1 1/16-mile allowance race by 2 1/4 lengths under C.C. Lopez. The good-looking son of A.P. Indy broke his maiden by more than 10 lengths last September at Philadelphia Park. Lord Justice was cross-entered in the Wood Memorial (gr. I) on the same day and could run in that race.
Peachtree Stable’s Il Postino, a Distorted Humor colt, was well back in his first two lifetime starts, but hit the winner’s circle in a big way Feb. 26 at Gulfstream Park, romping home by nearly 12 lengths in a $20,000 maiden claimer at one mile. Jesse Campbell will be in the irons for Pletcher.
Pletcher has won the Illinois Derby three times since 2001, most recently in 2007 with Cowtown Cat.
Robert Verratti's Perfect Song is a head from being undefeated in three starts. His March 14 one-mile allowance victory at Laurel came by two lengths in front-running fashion, and the Pleasantly Perfect colt is expected to challenge Lord Justice for the early lead in the Illinois Derby. Jeremy Rose will ride. Trombetta won the race in 2006 with Sweetnorthernsaint.
My Meadowview Farm’s Nowhere to Hide has finished fourth in his last two starts, the Risen Star and Tampa Bay Derby. The Vindication colt has won just once in seven starts for Zito. Paco Lopez will ride and they will break from the rail.
Silver Wing Stable’s Free Country garnered a lot of praise when winning a 1 1/8-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Jan. 8, but finished well back in the Sam Davis and Louisiana Derby. Eusebio Razo Jr. will get the call for the first time on the son of Big Country.