03/15/2007 12:00AM

Officer Rocket fueled for Rebel run


NEW YORK - The focus in racing Saturday will be on preps for the Kentucky Derby, as the three richest races in the nation are just such events: the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park and the Tampa Bay Derby, which are worth $300,000 each, and the $250,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita.

Rebel Stakes

It's hard to envision the pace in this race being anything other than hot and contested. Teuflesberg returned to front-running tactics last time out and responded with the best performance of his career, an upset win in the Southwest Stakes. And Curlin and Flying First Class both come in off big-figure, big-margin maiden wins sprinting, in which they made all the fractions. Unless two of the three get left in the gate, or a couple of them for some unforeseen reason adopt different running styles, it looks like Teuflesberg, Flying First Class, and Curlin are going to compromise their chances in the early running, and set this up for a closer. That's why Officer Rocket looks like a solid play.

Officer Rocket was gaining steadily on Teuflesberg late when second in the Southwest, even though Teuflesberg was largely unpressured on the front end. Officer Rocket gets a more favorable pace setup this time, and he should like the additional sixteenth of a mile in the Rebel. Moreover, Officer Rocket figures to be primed for a peak performance third start after a layoff.

Shirley Jones BC Handicap

Any Limit is going for a sweep here of the three graded sprint stakes at Gulfstream for older females, and since she has never been more effective than she is right now, it would be foolish to say she can't complete the hat trick. But I picked Stormy Kiss last time out against Any Limit in the Hurricane Bertie Handicap, and considering the trip she had, I can certainly give Stormy Kiss another shot Saturday.

You won't see what happened to Stormy Kiss in the Hurricane Bertie in her running line, because her trouble occurred between the point of call a quarter-mile into the race, and the point of call a half-mile into the race. Stormy Kiss was making a run to the leaders along the rail near the far turn when she was taken up sharply. She lost so much momentum that she went from a close fourth to last of 10. Remarkably, she gathered herself to make a big run up into contention to be fourth again by the time that second quarter-mile had been completed. That big run took the starch out of Stormy Kiss for the late stages, and she wound up fifth. But she is now making her second start after a layoff, and she has races in New York - specifically her win in the Honorable Miss and her third in the Genuine Risk Breeders' Cup last summer - that are just as good as any race Any Limit has run.

Florida Oaks

In the belief that the Todd Pletcher-trained Cotton Blossom will take a lot of money, as will Autobahn Girl, who has won both of her starts this year, including a stakes win last time out over the track, a respectable price might be available on Desire to Excel. Here's hoping, because I like her in this comeback, as I thought she was one of the best 2-year-old fillies I saw all of last season.

Desire to Excel has quality, as she showed in a five-length romp in the Astoria over Octave, who came back to win the Adirondack and later finish second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Desire to Excel lost to Cotton Blossom in the Schuylerville Stakes in her last start, but she was the best horse that day. She stumbled badly at the start, raced in traffic, and went wide on a rail-biased surface. Desire to Excel has good early foot and figures to show even more zip being fresh. And that will work to her advantage Saturday, as there isn't much other early speed in this field.