By Larry Hamel

For the Sun-Times

Once upon a time, the Illinois Derby carried some stroke for 3-year-old thoroughbreds looking to gain a spot in the Kentucky Derby.

The crowning glory for the Prairie State’s Derby came in 2002, a year after the date for the race was moved from between the Kentucky Derby and The Preakness to before The Run for the Roses.

War Emblem won that last
Illinois Derby contested at defunct Sportsman’s Park. Then he captured the imagination of the racing world by wiring the field in the Kentucky Derby and prevailing in the Preakness, before stumbling at the start of the Belmont Stakes and finishing eighth. War Emblem is one of 13 to fall one jewel short of true equine immortality since Affirmed became the 11th Triple Crown winner in 1978.

But as the racing landscape in Illinois has been sucked into an unrelenting downward spiral in recent years, so, too, has the significance of the Illinois Derby diminished.

The winner of the 58th running of the 1 ⅛-mile Grade III race won’t be headed for Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. The listing Illinois Derby awards no points under the relatively new system that determines the 20 Kentucky Derby starters. These days, our Derby is more of a prep for potential new shooters in the Preakness or an opportunity for a decent payday for late-blooming 3-year-olds whose seasons are just getting started.

The $400,000 stake on Saturday (Ch. 9, 5 p.m.) at Hawthorne Race Course has a clear-cut favorite in a field of nine, California shipper Cross the Line, who was fifth in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby and fast-closing second in the Grade III El Camino Real at Golden Gate Fields. The first three finishers in the Santa
Anita Derby are probables for the Kentucky Derby, including the undefeated winner, Dortmund.

Cross the Line is saddled by Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer (trainer of Shared Belief, the co-No. 1-ranked horse in the world) and will be ridden by rising star Florent Geroux, who won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in November aboard Illinois-bred Work All Week.

Hollendorfer was noncommittal as to whether even a victory here would propel his horse to Pimlico for the Preakness. “We haven’t made that decision,” he said. “We really are taking it one race at a time.

“[Cross the Line] has run very well in every one of his races, so we thought he warranted a shot at the Illinois Derby. He’s a legitimate dirt horse. We’ll see how he runs on Saturday and take it from there.”

Also figuring to receive support at the windows is Whiskey Ticket, despite a career record that reads 1-for-1. Why would bettors treat him with respect?

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert sends the colt here from California. The silver-maned maven never has saddled an Illinois Derby victor and might figure this one is a soft touch. The field boasts no graded-stakes winners and only four of the nine starters have won more than one race.

Also on the card at the Stickney spa is the Grade III Sixty Sails Handicap, a $150,000 stake over 1 ⅛ miles for fillies and mares 3-and-up. Awesome Flower is the even-money morning-line pick in a field of five.