While entries for the 51st Illinois Derby won't be drawn until Monday, the Grade 2, $500,000 race for three-year-olds could have a deep and competitive field with many of the nation's top trainers and horses participating.
When late nominations closed on March 24, there were 15 names were added to the list of 82 horses that comprised the Early Bird nominations. All late nominations came attached with a $500 fee, many of whom will likely enter when the Illinois Derby gates spring open on April 5 at Hawthorne Racecourse.
"We just like to keep the Illinois Derby in the national spotlight," said Debbie Lindsay, Hawthorne's stakes coordinator. "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."
Eclipse award winning trainer Todd Pletcher certainly 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 the powerful Pletcher 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, this son of Repent comes off of two narrow losses in both the Grade 2, Remsen, where he was beaten a neck by Court's Vision, (another Illinois Derby nominee) and in the Grade 3, Tampa Bay Derby, when Big Truck (yes, another nominee) also necked out Atoned in a thrilling stretch duel.
Bill Mott has 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 in December (dead-heated with Turf War), and comes off a fourth place finish in the Fountain of Youth.
Perhaps the Derby's most intriguing nomination and likely Kentucky Derby 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 Grade 3 Southwest Derby 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.