An overflow field of 17 has been entered to go 1 1/8 miles on Saturday in the Grade 3, $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne, and Currency Swap is the horse to beat.
Trained by Terri Pompay, the High Cotton colt returned from a six-month break to run second to unbeaten Gemologist in an allowance on March 16 at Gulfstream Park. Prior to that Currency Swap was undefeated himself in two starts, including a three-quarter length victory in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga on September 5.
"He was on the farm after we took the small chip out of his ankle following the Hopeful," Pompay explained the absence. "We got him back and he's been great, he's moved forward all along, but still -- in the quest to go on the Derby trail, we're a little behind the eight ball."
Though Currency Swap earned $150,000 for his Hopeful victory, the three-year-old needs a win in Illinois Derby if he hopes to have enough graded earnings to make the Kentucky Derby field on May 5. The projected cutoff for the Run for the Roses could reach as high as $300,000 this year.
"I put him in the allowance race to get a race into him coming back off the bench and he ran well, but we ran into Gemologist who is a monster," Pompay said. "We weren't really as tight as we should have been in that race coming off a seven-month layoff, but it's great to have him back and training well.
"I was crushed when we didn't get to go to the Breeders' Cup. I really thought we could win the Juvenile and I knew I had a really special horse -- and I wanted to prove it and show him off."
Pompay could make history if Currency Swap pulls off a win in the Illinois Derby and gets into the Kentucky Derby as there has never been a female trainer who won the Run for the Roses in its 137-year history.
"My dream is to go to the Derby, but I want to go to the Derby with a horse I think has a really good shot," she said. "I'd love to be able to win the Illinois Derby and have that option, and if he won there and the owners said 'Let's go!' I'd love to give Kentucky a try. He's proved to me he's a real special horse and I'm hoping he runs a terrific race on Saturday."
Another needing the $300,000 winner's share of the Illinois Derby to make the Kentucky Derby field is Our Entourage. Thus far, the Todd Pletcher-trained Street Cry colt has racked up $18,000 in graded earnings from a pair of fifth-placings in the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity and Grade 2 Remsen Stakes. The bay returned to competition on February 25, scoring a one-length win against optional claiming rivals on the turf at Gulfstream Park.
Ring It Up, Pretension and Done Talking are all looking to throw their hats into the Kentucky Derby ring with a win on Saturday. The former, a Chris Richard-trained son of Toccet, made his stakes bow in the first division of the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes and finished fourth, just missing third by a neck.
The other two both competed in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes, with Pretension coming in fifth and Done Talking winding up 10th. Pretension, a Bluegrass Cat three-year-old trained by Chris Grove, scored in the Sweet Envoy Stakes and was a head second in the Damon Runyon Stakes at Aqueduct, but also ran second to the returning Private Terms second Hakam in an optional claimer on January 4.
"The Gotham race was kind of screwed up," Grove said. "Going into the first turn, a horse of Pletcher's came over on him and he got shuffled back. He doesn't have to be on the lead but he likes to lay up close, two or three lengths off the pace. So he was five or six lengths back which was a new spot for him, and he made a real nice move to be within two lengths of Hansen, but then Hansen just drew off."
Done Talking, on the other hand, was a length behind in fourth in the Remsen and could improve here after making his return from a three-month layoff in the Gotham.
Only 14 will be allowed to go in the Illinois Derby, leaving three on the outside looking in at this point.