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Joe Vann runs away with Illinois Derby

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Trainer Todd Pletcher didn’t attend the Illinois Derby on Satur-day at Hawthorne Race Course, even though one of his horses had won the race three times in the last 10 years. Unfortunately for him, he missed victory No. 4.

Pletcher-trained Joe Vann won the 54th running of the Illinois Derby, a $300,000 Grade III stakes race for 3-year-olds, by 41/4 lengths. He covered 11/8 miles in 1 minute, 51.91 seconds.

Joe Vann, who was sent off as the 5-1 fourth choice by bettors and was ridden by Florent Geroux, paid $12.60 to win, and the exacta of Joe Vann and Zoebear paid $108.80. The Fed Eased finished third.

‘‘This race was huge,’’ Geroux said. ‘‘The win in the Illinois Derby was one of the biggest of my career.’’

Pletcher was at Aqueduct in New York, where he raced Uncle Mo in the $1 million Wood Memorial. Uncle Mo was the favorite in the Grade I race, but Toby’s Corner passed him down the stretch to score the upset.

In Pletcher’s place at Hawthorne was assistant trainer Mike Dilger, who said he hadn’t even seen Joe Vann until he got to the track Friday.

‘‘He worked at Belmont last week, then got on a van the following day and went to Kentucky, and then he came from Kentucky up to here,’’ Dilger said. ‘‘So he’s put on a few highway miles to get here.’’

Joe Vann, who started from Post 3, stayed in a pack with Lagoon of Diamonds, The Fed Eased and favored Watch Me Go early on. Stalking the lead until about the three-quarter-mile mark, Geroux urged Joe Vann past Lagoon of Diamonds and into the lead for good.

‘‘Mike just told me to enjoy myself, and that [made] me confident,’’ Geroux said. ‘‘I was only a half-length off the leader, and when I asked him [to break away] at the quarter pole, he just took off.’’

Watch Me Go, the 7-2 favorite out of Post 6, finished sixth. He was coming off the biggest victory of his career March 12, when he won the Tampa Bay Derby as a 43-1 long shot.

There was talk a victory in the Illinois Derby might send Watch Me Go to the Kentucky Derby on May 7. Now the horse’s plans have changed.

‘‘It looked like there was a lot of speed in there,’’ Watch Me Go trainer Kathleen O’Connell said. ‘‘We have to stop and regroup. We have to see how the horse comes back and regroup from there.’’

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