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Feb 15, 2013

Up the Backstretch: Illinois Derby outside looking in

By: By Don Agriss, Horse Racing Editor

(Sports Network) - As Hawthorne Race Course begins its 122nd year of thoroughbred racing Friday the track's premier event, the Illinois Derby, is in a precarious position.

With Churchill Downs changing the way horses qualify to run in the Kentucky Derby, the Illinois Derby was left off the list of stakes races which are part of the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" point system. Although a graded stakes, the 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-olds no longer offers entrants a chance to get to the Run for the Roses.

"No one really knows what will happen with the new Kentucky Derby points system and there are likely to be some great horses who find their paths to Louisville closed off," said John Walsh, Hawthorne assistant general manager in charge of racing operations.

A Grade III event, the Illinois Derby had been a way for Kentucky Derby contenders to accumulate graded stakes earnings that were used to determine the 20 horse field on the first Saturday in May.

Late last year when Churchill Downs changed to a point system and released an extensive list of races offering points to the first four finishers, the Illinois Derby was conspicuous by its absence.

Give credit to the operators of Hawthorne for not sitting and whining about the shun from Louisville. They decided to take advantage of the situation and retool for the 56th running of the Illinois Derby.

The 1 1/8-mile race had been conducted four weeks prior to the Run for the Roses with several of its winners competing in the Kentucky Derby. In 2002 War Emblem followed his Illinois Derby win with victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness

The 2013 running of the race has been pushed back to April 20 and given a large purse increase to $750,000.

"I think a lot of owners are going to be looking closely at our purse, and a lot of trainers with an eye on the Preakness are going to be looking for a final prep that fits well on their calendars," Walsh noted.

Of course, an ambitious trainer with a horse who has already qualified for the Run for the Roses but has not raced in more than a month might just use the Illinois Derby as a tightener leading to the Kentucky Derby.

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