The Illinois Derby has never been bigger.
"We're thrilled to have the largest field we've ever had for the Illinois Derby," said Hawthorne track president Tim Carey. "We're extremely proud that the race has shaped up the way it has, especially since we were able to raise the purse this year (due to release of the funds from casino impact fee) ."
If you goWhat: 55th Illinois Derby, with a record-setting field of 14 horses for Grade II $500,000 race at 1 1-miles.
When: Saturday, with gates opening at 10:30 a.m. First post is 1:40 p.m., with Illinois Derby post at approximately 5:45 p.m.
Where: Hawthorne Racecourse, 3501 S. Laramie, Cicero and Stickney.
Tickets: General admission $3.50, including a race program or Daily Racing Form.
Turf bonus: Because the weather has been so favorable, Hawthorne has three races carded for the sod, the earliest the track has ever contested races on the turf.
On the air: The Cryptoclearance Stakes and Illinois Derby will be televised live in a one-hour telecast on WGN-TV Ch. 9 at 5 p.m.
History: First run in 1923, the Illinois Derby was formerly scheduled between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, thus competing with the second leg of the Triple Crown.
In 2001, it was moved four weeks before the Kentucky Derby became a major Triple Crown prep. The 2002 Illinois Derby (run at Sportsman's Park) produced dual classic winner War Emblem, winner of that year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
Winning horses such as 2003's Ten Most Wanted, Pollard's Vision in 2004, Greely's Galaxy in 2005, Sweetnorthernsaint in 2006, Recapturetheglory in 2008, and Musket Man in 2009 went on to prominent stakes careers following their Illinois Derby scores.
-- John Leusch
The Kentucky Derby is on the minds of all connections for Saturday's $500,000 TVG Illinois Derby.
The 55th running of the Illinois Derby is a 1-miles dirt race where 14 runners plus three also-eligibles were entered Wednesday. Nine of the 14 visited the winner's circle last time out, including Repole Stable's Todd Pletcher trainee Our Entourage (second choice at 9-2) and the promising maiden winner Morgan's Guerrilla (10-1), who will be ridden by top jock Rosie Napravnik for trainer Michael Maker.
Pletcher has won the race four times in the last 11 years.
"With 14 horses, it makes for a tremendous wagering race," said Hawthorne assistant general manager Jim Miller. "When you have a full field like this, it gives everybody the opportunity to generate enough earnings to get that opportunity to run in the Kentucky Derby."
Currency Swap, the 4-1 morningline favorite, returned to the races March 16 at Gulfstream Park and finished second to Grace I Wood Memorial contender Gemologist in a one-mile allowance event.
"It's (talented field) indicative of what we could accomplish and the kind of horses we could have running in Illinois on a regular basis if we had slots at the racetracks to fund a competitive purse structure," Carey added.
Post time for the Illinois Derby is approximately 5:46 p.m. Saturday and will be televised locally for the first time by WGN and nationally by sponsor TVG.
"It's a one-hour telecast, and will also include the Cryptoclearance Stakes ($60,000 purse)," Miller said. "That stakes and the Illinois Derby will be shown live."
Currency Swap is the first Grade I winner for trainer Terri Pompay. The 3-year-old colt won the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga last September.
"He was on the farm after we took the small chip out of his ankle following the Hopeful," Pompay said. "We got him back and he's been great, he's moved forward all along, but still -- in the quest to go on the Derby trail, we're a little behind the eight ball."
A win and the resulting $300,000 share of the Illinois Derby purse would certainly help the son of High Cotton secure a spot in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field. He currently ranks 27th by graded earnings with $150,000 from his 2-year-old stakes score for Klaravich Stables and William Lawrence.
"I put him in the allowance race to get a race into him coming back off the bench and he ran well, but we ran into Gemologist who is a monster," said Pompay.
"We weren't really as tight as we should have been in that race coming off a seven-month layoff, but it's great to have him back and training well. I was crushed when we didn't get to go to the Breeders' Cup. I really thought we could win the Juvenile and I knew I had a really special horse -- and I wanted to prove it and show him off."
If headed to the Kentucky Derby, Pompay would become a major storyline -- attempting to become the first female trainer in the race's 137-year history to win.
"My dream is to go to the Derby, but I want to go to the Derby with a horse I think has a really good shot," she said. "I'd love to be able to win the Illinois Derby and have that option."
Contenders for the 55th running of the Illinois Derby last made starts in New York, Maryland, Texas, Arkansas, and Florida.
Pretension, third choice in the Illinois Derby at 5-1, and Hamilton Smith trainee Done Talking (20-1) were at Aqueduct on March 3 for the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes. They emerged a respective fifth and tenth from the New York prep.
Hakama (6-1), runner-up by a head in the March 17 Private Terms Stakes at Laurel Park for trainer Michael Trombetta, could be setting that early pace for Pretension. So could Z Rockstar (10-1), sent in from the Oaklawn Park stable of trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel.
Skyring (20-1), a maiden winner last time out at Oaklawn March 17, is trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas.