Trainer Steve Asmussen schools Rebel entry Private Vow in the indoor paddock at Oaklawn Park.

Trainer Steve Asmussen schools Rebel entry Private Vow in the indoor paddock at Oaklawn Park.

Jeff Coady

Haskin's Weekend Preview: It's Crunch Time!

Never before have three grade III stakes and a grade II stakes come together on one afternoon to showcase so many major players on the Triple Crown trail. With the grade III Rebel, Gotham, and Tampa Bay Derby and grade II San Felipe drawing so many serious Derby horses, this surely will be a make or break weekend.

What makes it even more fascinating is that there are questions still surrounding many of the big-name horses competing this weekend. And with so many unproven, but talented horses ready to crash the Top 10 lists, there could be some major changes after Saturday.

The most solid horses are Bluegrass Cat, who heads the Tampa Bay Derby, and Bob and John, the favorite for the San Felipe Stakes. Both have excellent stakes credentials and distance pedigrees, and are in top hands, with Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert, respectively. The other high-profile horses are Keyed Entry, Achilles of Troy, and Sweetnorthnernsaint, who knock heads in the Gotham, and Lawyer Ron, Private Vow, and Steppenwolfer, who face off in the Rebel. All have proven themselves to be talented horses with unlimited potential, but they still have questions to answer, such as: can Keyed Entry, Lawyer Ron, and Sweetnorthernsaint harness their speed? How will Private Vow handle a long layoff? Can Achilles of Troy step up against much better competition? And can Steppenwolfer continue to progress at the rate he has been?

If any of these horses make a mistake, it is conceivable they can drop right out of the Top 10 or even Top 15. Here is how each race shapes up:

SAN FELIPE – We'll start with the San Felipe because there isn't a weak link in the field, and there are several budding stars that are one race away from catapulting into the Top 10. Bob and John, winner of the Sham Stakes (gr. III), will be the solid favorite, with the rapidly improving Refinery possibly second choice. You have to figure Bob and John's stablemate, Point Determined, will take in his share of action as well. But there are three others who should be a good price and are capable of posting an upset.

The two most attractive propositions are Racketeer and A.P. Warrior. Racketeer broke his maiden going six furlongs, and the second and third-place finishers - Record and Arson Squad - both came back to score huge wins in their next start. Unable to find a suitable distance race for him, trainer Bobby Frankel was forced to run him back at six furlongs, and he finished a solid third behind two fast, experienced stakes horses, Bengal Lore and The Pharaoh, the latter having run second to Stevie Wonderboy in the Del Mar Futurity (gr. II).

The fact that Racketeer, a son of Awesome Again , ran so well at six furlongs indicates he could be a horse worth watching. He should relish the stretch-out to two turns, but never having raced over six furlongs, he may need this race to help move him forward. He still may be good enough to win, but he should be even better next time out. He's an intriguing play in the exotics.

The other horse to consider who could prove to be a big overlay is A.P. Warrior, despite his coming off two disappointing and uninspiring fourths, in the Hollywood Futurity (gr. I) and El Camino Real Derby (gr. III). This well-bred son of A.P. Indy was considered a rising star last year when he finished a fast-closing second to Brother Derek in the Norfolk Stakes (gr. II) and then soundly defeated Bob and John in a one-mile allowance race, drawing off to a four-length score. But in his last two starts, he spent the early part of the race fighting the restraint of his rider. He expended so much energy trying to get his head, he either sulked or simply lost interest by the time he was asked to run.

He has since been turned over to John Shirreffs, but you can't blame Eoin Harty if jockeys don't follow instructions. This is a free-running horse, and you can bet his new rider is going to give him a free rein and not fight him. If he returns to his form of last fall, he's as good as anyone in the race, and should be an attractive price. There's no way of telling what you're going to get from him, but if he's up there at an attractive price, he's worth taking a shot on.

An improving horse who could at least pick up a piece of it at a price, is New Joysey Jeff, who's made excellent progress in each race. With his strong closing kick, the son of Bright Launch, out of a Dynaformer mare, has the pedigree and the running style to become a serious horse on the Derby trail.

GOTHAM – With Sweetnorthernsaint drawing post 10 of 11 starters, the son of Sweetsouthernsaint is going to have to break sharply and either try to outrun the field into the first turn or at least get a position right outside Keyed Entry, who drew post 7. Achilles of Troy will break from post 6, which means he'll have one speed horse (Like Now) inside him and another speed horse (Keyed Entry) outside him. Ramon Domiguez likely will let the speed go and try to settle him right behind. At some point, however, Domiguez is going to have to ask Achilles of Troy for his run before one of the others, most likely Keyed Entry, has a chance to break free. With the three favorites assuring a hotly contested pace, the race could set up for a horse with a powerful closing punch.

Hesanoldsalt and Greeley's Legacy are two such horses. It all depends if we see the Hesanoldsalt who charged right by Sunriver in an allowance race at Gulfstream or the one who never ran a lick in the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay over a surface he no doubt despised. Sunriver came off that allowance race and ran poorly in the Holy Bull (gr. III) over a sealed sloppy track he couldn't handle, but rebounded with an impressive allowance victory on Mar. 4. Trainer Nick Zito is hoping for a similar rebound from Hesanoldsalt.

Greeley's Legacy could be a big play in the Gotham. His last three races have been strong, and the son of Mister Greeley, after trying for five races to find a comfortable running style, has developed into an exciting closer with an explosive move on the far turn. Even in his fourth-place finish on Jan. 26, he looked as if he were going to blow by the field, but self-destructed when he bore in several times, taking the worst of two severe bumping matches, the last of which knocked him off stride. He was more professional in his next start, inhaling the field on the turn and then opening a five-length lead at the eighth pole. He maintained that lead under a hand ride, winning by 5 1/2 lengths. Even if the pace scenario doesn't play out as well as it appears on paper, he still looks to be a live horse to fill the exacta and trifecta.

REBEL – Rain is in the forecast for Saturday, which could play havoc with the Rebel. Music School had a sharp blowout in :35 3/5 on Thursday, but we'll have to see if trainer Neil Howard and owner William Farish decide to run or scratch. Private Vow is making his first start of the year, and trainer Steve Asmussen has no choice but to run if he's to have any chance at all of making the Derby. Lawyer Ron won his only start in the slop and is bred for it, so it should be no problem for him. Steppenwolfer has won over a good track, and should stay in the clear, breaking from the outside post in the field of 10. Well Said, winner of his last two starts, has never run over an off track, but definitely is bred for it.

If there is going to be an obstacle for Lawyer Ron, it could be Travelin Leroy, who likely will bolt for the lead. If Lawyer Ron settles the way he did in the Risen Star (gr. III), then Travelin Leroy could be an asset to him, giving him something to run at. The only problem for Lawyer Ron is that he drew the rail, with Travelin Leroy right next to him in post 2, which should make it more difficult for Lawyer Ron to relax and take back.

Private Vow breaks from post 5 and should be sharp coming off a four-month layoff. But he'd better not be too sharp and make it hard for jockey Shaun Bridgmohan to take a comfortable hold of him. Well Said, who drew the 6 post, should have a good trip right behind the leaders.

Music School, Red Raymond, and Steppenwolfer drew the three outside posts. The last two will have to take back and drop over. Music School has good tactical speed, but will have to let the speed go and try to settle in mid-pack. The son of A.P. Indy certainly doesn't need to win this race, only to improve on his fourth-place finish in the Southwest to put him in position to take another step forward in the Arkansas Derby. He didn't get a lot out of his first race back and was short in the Southwest against much more seasoned opponents. If he can take small steps forward in his next two starts, he could be ready to peak on Derby Day.

There is nothing in his pedigree to suggest that he won't handle an off track, and if Farish has any Derby aspirations, this is a key race, unless he and Howard opt for next Saturday's Lane's End Stakes (gr. II) at Turfway. But running a Derby hopeful on Polytrack is a gamble until we find out what short-term effect the surface has on a horse.

The most interesting horse in here is Private Vow. He has the highest profile from his 2-year-old campaign, and it's a fine line between coming back off a layoff and running too big a race first time back and being short. But when you're going to have only two starts prior to the Derby, you better get a lot out of both of them; so he has to come back running and be prepared for a tough race.

Steppenwolfer should move forward off his second-place finish in the Southwest, and a first or second will make him a serious Derby contender, as he no doubt will get even better when the distances stretch out.

TAMPA BAY DERBY – This one should belong to Bluegrass Cat, who towers over the field of nine. But don't be surprised to see Little Cliff run a much better race than he did in the Sam F. Davis, when he finished a well-beaten fourth. Also, Deputy Glitters is back to try him again after running a big second in the Sam Davis. While both should run well, there is a question whether either of them can turn the tables on Bluegrass Cat, who should also move forward off the Sam Davis.

But the horse to watch in here is Storm Treasure, who ran an excellent second to the exciting Strong Contender in a mile allowance race run in 1:34 3/5. The son of Storm Boot looked super breaking his maiden by 7 1/2 lengths at Churchill Downs last fall. Making his 3-year-old debut on Feb. 22, he was bumped soundly at the start and then made a strong run from sixth to get up for second, 4 3/4 lengths behind Strong Contender. There is no reason why he shouldn't improve a great deal off that effort, and looks to be a live horse to put behind Bluegrass Cat in the exacta. And if the favorite makes a mistake, he could win it all.