Gonzalo Gonzalez rides Two Phil’s — the first Illinois-based horse to qualify for the Kentucky Derby since 2007 — during a training run at Hawthorne Race Course on April 21.

Gonzalo Gonzalez rides Two Phil’s — the first Illinois-based horse to qualify for the Kentucky Derby since 2007 — during a training run at Hawthorne Race Course on April 21.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Two Phil’s, out to ‘prove himself to everybody,’ gives Illinois its first Kentucky Derby contender since 2007

The chestnut colt, which trains at Hawthorne Race Course, has won four races since debuting last summer — including a victory at Churchill Downs.

Larry Rivelli is a body in constant motion on the backstretch at Hawthorne Race Course.

When Rivelli’s not doting on one of the 70-plus thoroughbreds in his stable, he’s talking to one of his 30-plus workers for the latest intel on his horses.

When he’s not loading up one of those horses for a race in Minnesota, he’s welcoming back another from a run in Indiana.

And when he’s not jawing through a mouthful of sunflower seeds during a phone call with an owner, Rivelli’s shoveling in another handful while swiping through continual pings of text messages.

“There’s a little OCD in me,” the 52-year-old North Barrington trainer said on a gray April morning at the Stickney track. “I’ve gotta keep moving.”

But his pacing comes to a standstill when it’s time to trot out Two Phil’s, the 3-year-old chestnut colt with the white-striped snout, who commands all of Rivelli’s attention. Other trainers and riders stop to poke their heads over the backstretch gate, too, for a view of one of the horse’s final training sessions before the biggest race in the world.

All eyes in the state’s entire horse racing industry will be focused on Two Phil’s this weekend, too, as he’s poised to become the first Illinois-based horse to compete in the Kentucky Derby since Recapturetheglory finished fifth in 2007.

“He’s the best horse I’ve had,” said Rivelli, a third-generation trainer who’s had about 5,000 of them over the last three decades.

Trainer Larry Rivelli pets Two Phil’s inside a barn on the backstretch of Hawthorne Race Course on April 21.

Trainer Larry Rivelli pets Two Phil’s inside a barn on the backstretch of Hawthorne Race Course on April 21.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

It’s the first Derby run for Rivelli, unquestionably Illinois’ top thoroughbred trainer with 1,772 wins and more than $36 million in earnings since 2000.

Much of that success came at Arlington International Racecourse, where Rivelli won nine trainer championships, including eight straight from 2014 through the storied oval’s closure in 2021. On average, a Rivelli steed won every third race in the final year at Arlington, nearly half a century after Rivelli’s grandfather first brought him as a toddler to the suburban backstretch.

Two Phil’s, a 3-year-old colt, is the first Illinois-based horse to qualify for the Kentucky Derby since 2007.

Two Phil’s, a 3-year-old colt, is the first Illinois-based horse to qualify for the Kentucky Derby since 2007.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

But it wasn’t clear out of the gate that Two Phil’s would end up being considered a top-third contender in the Derby field.

Part-owner Phil Sagan — one half of the colt’s namesake — twice tried to sell the horse, who’s the foal of accomplished mare Mia Torri and stallion Hard Spun. The other half of the name nods to Phil La Sala, the father of former Chicago jockey Jerry La Sala, who helped make the breeding connection.

Falling short of a satisfactory price, the Sagan family connected with Rivelli, who thought “he looked solid,” and Vince Foglia Jr., who owns many of the horses Rivelli trains. With the Foglia family buying in with Sagan on an 80-20 split, Two Phil’s was off to the races.

“He’s the horse that has needed to prove himself to everybody,” Rivelli said.

It was a disappointing debut last June at none other than Churchill Downs, where Two Phil’s finished fifth. But he has won four of the seven races he has run since then — including a victory on a wet October day at the legendary Louisville track.

While he hasn’t raced at either of Illinois’ two surviving tracks, Two Phil’s has perfected his craft in training on the Hawthorne dirt.

Rivelli and jockey Jareth Loveberry will be aiming for a reprise of his muddy Churchill Downs win.

“I hope it’s the most miserable Kentucky Derby anyone’s ever seen,” Rivelli joked, though early forecasts were pointing toward sunny skies for the most exciting two minutes in sports.

Larry Rivelli, widely considered the top thoroughbred racehorse trainer in Illinois, brings his first horse to the Kentucky Derby on May 6.

Larry Rivelli, widely considered the top thoroughbred racehorse trainer in Illinois, brings his first horse to the Kentucky Derby on May 6.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Regardless of conditions, the 1,100-pound horse is certainly gifted with above-average size and speed topping out over 40 mph — but that’s not what makes Two Phil’s special, Rivelli said.

“There’s gonna be 150,000 people screaming, and other horses will be all jacked up, sweating, nervous,” Rivelli said. “But he’s just got a little bit of an air about him, like he’s not really afraid of much. He doesn’t come busting out of the gate. But when he sees daylight, he knows it’s time to go.”

Rivelli hopes that even-keeled demeanor will put an Illinois horse in the Derby winner’s circle for the first time since War Emblem won in 2002 — and put a national spotlight on a state horse racing industry that has struggled mightily since then.

“Good horses can come from anywhere,” Rivelli said.

Two Phil’s is walked through a barn after a training session at Hawthorne Race Course.

Two Phil’s is walked through a barn after a training session at Hawthorne Race Course.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Two Phil’s (right) peeks out of his stall at a Hawthorne Race Course barn.

Two Phil’s (right) peeks out of his stall at a Hawthorne Race Course barn.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

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