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Kentucky on the minds of Illinois Derby starters

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Ever since War Emblem won the 2002 Illinois Derby and went on to win the Kentucky Derby, horses and their trainers have used the spring race at Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney as a springboard to the sport’s premier events.

That should hold true this year, too, when the 54th running of the Grade III Illinois Derby for 3-year-olds goes to post at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Hawthorne, the seventh race on a 10-race card over 11/8 miles.

The Derby’s $300,000 purse is down from $500,000 a year ago. The purse had dropped to $250,000, but sponsor TVG chipped in $50,000 last month.

“The extra $50,000 to the purse was a huge draw for this race,” Hawthorne assistant general manager Jim Miller said. “It could make the difference as to whether the winner has enough earnings to make it into the Kentucky Derby.”

This year’s horse to watch is Watch Me Go.

Watch Me Go won the Tampa Bay Derby, a Grade II stakes race, March 12. The horse was a 43-1 long shot to win in Tampa, but pulled to the lead in the homestretch and never looked back. It was the biggest upset in the race’s history.

The win not only puts Watch Me Go in line as a serious contender to make the field for the May 7 Kentucky Derby, but also as the horse to beat on Saturday.

Owned by Gilbert Campbell and trained by Kathleen O’Connell, Watch Me Go is the 7-2 morning-line favorite and will start from Post 4 in the 12-horse field. He will be ridden by his regular jockey, Luis Garcia. Watch Me Go has earned $311,345.

Joe Vann, ridden by Florent Geroux and listed at 6-1, is another to watch and will start from Post 3. Joe Vann is trained by Todd Pletcher, who has three Illinois Derby victories since 2001. Pletcher won in 2001 with Distilled, 2004 with Pollard’s Vision and 2007 with Cowtown Cat.

Rounding out the favorites is The Fed Eased at 5-1, in Post 7. Trained by Richard Violette Jr., The Fed Eased finished fifth in the Grade III Gotham Stakes on March 5 at Aqueduct and will be ridden by Jose Valdivia Jr.

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