Entries for the $500,000 Illinois Derby (gr. II) won’t be drawn until March 31, but from the looks of the nominations, the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) prep is shaping into a deep and competitive field with many of the nation’s top trainers and horses participating.
When late nominations closed March 24, there were 15 new names attached to the already impressive list of 82 horses that comprised the Early Bird nominations. The race will be run April 5 at Hawthorne Race Course.
“We just like to keep the Illinois Derby in the national spotlight,” said Stakes Coordinator Debbie Lindsay. “It’s a great race at a good time of the year, because it’s four weeks until the Kentucky Derby. That makes it a graded prep race for decent money and I think most of the horsemen recognize that.”
Certainly a horseman like Eclipse Award winning trainer Todd Pletcher has the Illinois Derby on his national radar. Pletcher won this race last year with Cowtown Cat and this year it is likely that Atoned will represent his powerful stable. Pletcher has also nominated three other colts, and it is possible that recent allowance winner, Spurrier, will be entered as well.
As for Atoned, the son of Repent comes off of two narrow losses in both the Remsen (gr. II), where he was beaten a neck by Court’s Vision, and in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), when Big Truck necked out Atoned in a thrilling stretch duel. Both Court Vision and Big Truck were also nominated to the Illinois Derby.
Bill Mott has also nominated several of his best three-year-olds, but will likely enter Z Humor in the Derby. Winless so far this year, Z Humor captured the $1 million Delta Jackpot (gr. III) in December (dead-heated with Turf War), and comes off a fourth place finish in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park.
Perhaps the most intriguing nomination and likely participant is the David Carroll trained Denis of Cork. This son of Harlan's Holiday is undefeated in three lifetime starts including a convincing win in the Southwest (gr. III) in his most recent start. Carroll also trains fellow nominee Blackberry Road, although that horse is likely to make his next start in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II).
Visionaire is also an Illinois Derby nominee and at this time his trainer Michael Matz is deciding between the Illinois Derby or the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) for his colt’s next start. Visionaire comes off a last-to-first victory in the Gotham Stakes (gr. III) and his appearance in Chicago would certainly add to the quality of the contest.
The list runs deep, but a few of the other prospective starters include Golden Spikes, a well-bred horse from the barn of Marty Wolfson, Jazz in the Park, an up-and-coming sort from Bobby Barnett’s stable, Kentucky Bear, a disappointing 7th in the Fountain of Youth, and Instill, an Illinois-bred who will look to rebound following two disappointing efforts in his most recent starts.
Nationally renowned trainers such as Bob Baffert, Steve Asmussen, Richard Mandella, Barclay Tagg, Kiaran McLaughlin, Doug O’Neil and Dale Romans all have many of their top colts nominated for the 51st running of the Illinois Derby. Many decisions will have to be made in the next few days, but for now, the race is lining up to be one of the best of the year.