Denis of Cork leads a field of seven in the Illinois Derby (gr. II) at Hawthorne April 5.

Denis of Cork leads a field of seven in the Illinois Derby (gr. II) at Hawthorne April 5.

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Illinois Derby: Denis of Cork Faces Six

Denis of Cork will try to remain undefeated April 5 in the Illinois Derby.

William K. Warren’s Denis of Cork will put his undefeated record on the line and try to remain near the top of a small list of Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) favorites April 5 when he takes on six rivals in the $500,000 Illinois Derby (gr. II) at Hawthorne Race Course.

Among Denis of Cork’s main challengers will be Z Humor, who is third on the Kentucky Derby graded-earnings list but has been a non-factor in both of his 3-year-old starts, and Atoned, a Florida-bred colt who has been a bridesmaid in his last four efforts, including a neck defeat in the March 15 Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III).

Also in the field is fifth-place Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) finisher Golden Spikes, Texas Heritage Stakes winner Real Appeal, and the only two colts that have a win on the Hawthorne dirt – Instill and Recapturetheglory.

Though having started only three times, Denis of Cork is the one to beat. The son of Harlan's Holiday broke his maiden in November at Churchill Downs, won an allowance event on a sloppy track at Fair Grounds Jan. 19, and then conquered the one-mile Southwest Stakes (gr. III) by 2¼ lengths Feb. 18 at Oaklawn Park.

The 1 1/8-mile Illinois Derby will present a new set of challenges for Denis of Cork, who has never traveled more than one mile and 70 yards. The bay colt will also try his fourth different racetrack, and his connections will have to prove that deciding to skip the March 15 Rebel Stakes (gr. III) was not a mistake.

“After the Southwest Stakes, the game plan was to run in the Rebel,” trainer David Carroll said. “But everyone talked it over, and decided the best plan was to spread the races a bit further apart. Mr. Warren and his team are big on speed sheets and numbers. This is the plan that they felt most comfortable with.

“This horse has only run over dirt tracks in his starts, so it would have been too risky to try the Blue Grass (on Polytrack) at this stage of his career when we’re trying to get to Churchill. I felt the Illinois Derby gave us the best chance right now to see where we are.”

Out of the Unbridled mare Unbridled Girl, Denis of Cork could also use more graded earnings. Currently, he has earned $150,000, which puts him 18th on the list. The top 20 graded earners are guaranteed a spot in the Kentucky Derby field.

Bred by Westbury Stables, Denis of Cork last worked March 30 at Churchill, breezing five furlongs in :59.40. Julien Leparoux has been assigned to ride for the first time. Denis of Cork drew post five.

"He's training very well. He had a really nice final work," Carroll continued. "We're in need of a big race. He's sitting right on the bubble as far as graded earnings, so we'll hope to pick up enough money to secure our place."

Even with $524,000 in graded earnings, most of which came due to a dead-heat win in the Boyd Gaming Delta Jackpot (gr. III) last December, Zayat Stables’ Z Humor must prove he is worthy of a chance to start on the first Saturday in May. The Bill Mott trainee has been quite average in his two sophomore tries, fading to fifth in the Feb. 16 Sam Davis Stakes and never challenging Feb. 24 when fourth in the Feb. 24 Fountain of Youth Stakes.

A Kentucky-bred son of Distorted Humor , Z Humor has been working well at Payson Park in Florida. His last breeze was four furlongs in :50.60 March 31. Rene Douglas will get the call for the first time on the bay colt.

Dogwood Stable’s Atoned will look to give trainer Todd Pletcher his fourth Illinois Derby victory. The Repentcolt could easily have been a cinch for the Kentucky Derby field had he hung on in either of his last two efforts, both neck defeats. In November, Atoned overcame numerous early problems during the 1 1/8-mile Remsen Stakes (gr. II) to lead into the stretch, but was caught in the final strides by Court Vision.

After a more than three-month layoff, Atoned also turned in a nice effort in the Tampa Bay Derby, again leading in deep stretch before being caught by Big Truck at the wire.

“I thought he ran and fought hard in the Tampa Bay Derby,” Pletcher said. “It was his first race since the layoff, and I expect him to move forward. We’ve had a lot of success at Hawthorne, and I hope that continues on Saturday. Because of how well Atoned ran in the Remsen, we thought about running him back in the Wood Memorial, but for various reasons, we’ll start at Hawthorne.”

Out of the Icecapade mare Amidst, the Florida-bred Atoned will be ridden by Joe Bravo.

A son of Seeking the Gold, Golden Spikes is 2-1-0 from six lifetime starts, finishing both of his graded stakes efforts off the board, but has been training exceptionally in Florida. Trainer Marty Wolfson said the Kentucky Derby, even with a win, is not in the cards for the colt.

“We just felt this was a good spot for the horse,” Wolfson said. “I have no intentions of heading to the Kentucky Derby, even if we win. I believe the horse might need more time between starts.”

Hawthorne’s leading rider, Tim Thornton, will ride Golden Spikes, who could be a factor with his early speed on a track that sometimes favors frontrunners.

Early pace could also come from Recapturetheglory, a Cherokee Run colt who drew the rail and will be making his first stakes appearance.

$500,000 Illinois Derby (gr. II, Race 7, 4:30 p.m.), Three-Year-Olds, 1 1/8 Miles
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey
1. Recapturetheglory, 122, E.T. Baird
2. Instill, 122, Christpher Emigh
3. Z Humor, 122, Rene Douglas
4. Atoned, 122, Joe Bravo
5. Denis of Cork, 122, Julien Leparoux
6. Golden Spikes, 122, Tim Thornton
7. Real Appeal, 122, James Graham