Monarchos -- last year's Derby winner never faced stakes company until the Florida Derby.

Monarchos -- last year's Derby winner never faced stakes company until the Florida Derby.

Mike Corrado

Steve Haskin's Weekend Preview: 3-Year-Old Crop Not Dead Yet

Just like that, we lost two exciting prospects from this weekend's stakes, Sunday Break and Saratoga Blues, with the latter not even on the Derby trail any longer. But now it's time to concentrate on the Florida Derby, San Felipe, Gotham, and Tampa Bay Derby. There have been numerous critics of this year's crop of 3-year-olds, and although it may indeed turn out to be a mediocre group, no proper judgment can be made until after this weekend.

Just look back at the last two years. Monarchos had never even run in a stakes before the Florida Derby. Fusaichi Pegasus had never run in a stakes before the San Felipe. Derby runners-up, Invisible Ink and Aptitude, had not run in a stakes before the Florida Derby and Gotham, respectively. Aptitude, in fact, was coming off a maiden race going into the Gotham. At this time last year, the Derby third-place finisher, Congaree, had only broken his maiden, while 2000 third-place finisher, Impeachment, had only managed a fourth in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay. Last year's early Derby favorite, Point Given, did not even make his first of the the year until the San Felipe.

By April of last year, however, most speed figure gurus were proclaiming the crop of 3-year-olds the fastest ever. But, in addition to the top horses mentioned above who had not accomplished anything of note before these races, there was Balto Star, who had never run in a stakes, competing in allowance races over Aqueduct's inner track; the three Louisiana Derby favorites, Dollar Bill, Millennium Wind, and Hero's Tribute, all were defeated by a 20-1 shot; and the previous year's Champagne winner A.P. Valentine had only a third-place finish in a 7-furlong allowance race to his credit. So, there is still hope for this bunch.

If after this weekend, the picture still is muddled, as it very well could be, then the critics can start their annual vilification of the 3-year-old crop. But we still can be optimistic, with the presence in the San Felipe of Siphonic, whose reputation could soar with an impressive victory. As would the reputation of USS Tinosa if he can duplicate his explosive victory in the Sham Stakes. Saarland could emerge as a solid Derby contender with a big effort in the Gotham. Another victory by Booklet would give him a sweep of all three Gulfstream distance stakes and make his detractors at least sit up and take notice. Or maybe someone like Nokoma or High Star or D'Coach or Blue Burner will take a huge leap forward, just as allowance winner Monarchos did last year. And then you have Bunk N Ted in the Tampa Bay Derby, who is undefeated and has blown away his opposition in his two starts this year. You even have an intriguing horse in Monarchoftheglen scheduled to run in an allowance race on the Florida Derby card.

No one knows what the Derby picture will look like after this weekend, but until then, it's simply too early to give this crop of 3-year-olds up for dead. Although many knocked Repent's erratic victory in the Louisiana Derby, he still has won three stakes in a row, four stakes in his last five starts, and finished a fast-closing second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. All this horse does is keep running big races in big stakes. Trainer Kenny McPeek, who once toyed with running the colt in the UAE Derby in Dubai, again is giving serious consideration to venturing off the standard course and may point for the Illinois Derby instead of any of the three conventional preps a week later.

"I'm just trying to time it," McPeek said. "Having four weeks to the Derby is better for him than three weeks. It gives us a better shot through the Triple Crown as a whole. He was made to get beat in the Louisiana Derby, and he still won. He had seven riders riding against him, constantly boxing him in. He's a free-running horse and he doesn't want to be ridden hard like that."

McPeek also confirmed that Take Charge Lady is being pointed for the Ashland Stakes, and that the only way she would run in the Arkansas Derby is if something prevented her from making the Ashland, and she needed an extra week.

Finally, there is Johannesburg, and regardless of how he's brought up to the Derby, his presence definitely will increase interest the race, both nationally and internationally. Trainer Aidan O'Brien is now noncommittal about his one start before the Derby, only that it will not be in the U.S. At this point, it really doesn't matter which race he runs in. He'll be blazing a new trail whichever route he takes.

So, basically, here is what we're dealing with this weekend: The San Felipe probably is the one race that can make the biggest impact if Siphonic runs to his best form. He will be facing horses a notch or two below him in class, so he shouldn't even need his best effort to win. One horse to watch as he gains experience and keeps stretching out is Puerto Banus, who now gets Gary Stevens after the defection of Sunday Break. The son of Supremo is loaded with classic and staying blood, has a nice long stride, and his one-paced style of running suggests he will be more effective once they get to nine furlongs and farther. Patience is the key word with him, as he continues to develop into a racehorse. With only five horses expected for the San Felipe, he really doesn't have to do much to be in the money again and continue on the Derby trail. Although he is bucking history big-time by not racing at 2, if he keeps improving, he could peak physically and mentally on Derby Day, much the way Charismatic did in 1999 – if he has the talent. We'll find that out Sunday.

The Florida Derby drew 11 starters, with a few surprising entries, such as Monthir, who had been penciled in for the 7-furlong Swale Stakes, and Coolmore's newly purchased Smooth Jazz, who has only two 6-furlong starts in his career. We don't know how much Coolmore spent on Smooth Jazz, but he sure looks to be in the race only to soften up Booklet for a late charge by stablemate Nokoma. If Nokoma, D'Coach or High Star runs a big race, they will be a force to reckon with come Derby Day.

With Saratoga Blues now off the Derby trail, the success of the Gotham in producing a Derby contender rests squarely on the shoulders of Saarland, as the California invader Mayakovsky, has way too much catching up to do, even if he did want any part of 1 1/4 miles, which doesn't seem likely at this point. A runaway victory by Mayakovsky would make this race fairly meaningless in regard to the Derby.

Finally, we have the Tampa Bay Derby, and all eyes will be on Bunk N Ted. He's still swimming in the proverbial little pond, but another brilliant score by the son of Belong to Me would at least make him a fascinating addition to one of the major preps on April 13.

If this weekend does wind up falling apart, then it's time to start thinking about Johannesburg and some of the many exciting and talented fillies here and in Dubai to provide a spark to the Derby picture.