04/05/2006 11:00PM

Racketeer can conquer Illinois

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NEW YORK - Of course, Saturday is an important day regarding the Kentucky Derby picture, with the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, the Santa Anita Derby, and the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne to be decided. But there is something for almost everyone else on the stakes schedule as well, including the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland and a pair of prestigious handicap races, the Apple Blossom and the Oaklawn Handicap, at Oaklawn Park.

Illinois Derby

Cause to Believe is the morning-line favorite. But while his record of never having finished worse than second in nine career starts is admirable, the worst defeat of his career came the one time he ventured outside of northern California. Moreover, this is by far the toughest field he has ever faced. Taking a stand against him at low odds is the way to go.

I like Racketeer. Not only did Racketeer keep good company when fourth last time out in the San Felipe behind A. P. Warrior and Point Determined, who are the main threats to Brother Derek in the Santa Anita Derby, and Bob and John, who is the morning line favorite in the Wood Memorial, his effort was better than it might look on paper. Racketeer contested a fast early pace in the San Felipe, and still fought on gamely in the stretch. Though the come-home time was not strong, considering the effort he expended early, it is to Racketeer's credit that he was beaten only 2 1/2 lengths.

The San Felipe was Racketeer's first attempt around two turns, so he can be a tougher customer with the benefit of that experience. Also, I sense that contesting a fast pace is not really Racketeer's preferred way of running. But even if he wants to be close early going long, the early pace doesn't figure to be nearly as demanding as the pace in the San Felipe was, which will only help.

Oaklawn Handicap

I liked, and bet, It's No Joke last time out in the Gulfstream Park Handicap. Even though he finished third, and faces a particularly tough California shipper Saturday in Magnum, It's No Joke ran so well in defeat that I am eager to go right back to him.

The Gulfstream Park Handicap was It's No Joke's first stakes start on a conventional dirt track, and he was under pressure every step of that race's 1 3/16 miles. It's No Joke participated in a four-way battle for the early lead, and just when he was able to get rid of two of those pace pests, Harlington made a sudden move from off the pace, slipped up the rail on him, and displaced him on the front end. Instead of folding, It's No Joke continued to battle, and considering his trip, he did very well to be beaten only one length.

It's No Joke won big in his first start of the year at Gulfstream, and the 107 Beyer Speed Figure he earned in that score makes him very competitive in a race like this, even if he does lack stakes experience. And, he projects to sit a nice stalking trip behind With Distinction.

Ashland Stakes

Colleague Brad Free was impressed with Sweet Sugaree's second in Oaklawn's Martha Washington Stakes in her only start this year, and it is easy to understand why. Sweet Sugaree set a strong pace under pressure over a dead track, and still finished ahead of 10 opponents. She has had ample time to recover from that effort, is poised to take a big step forward, and has a running style that plays well at Keeneland. Forgive me if I'm jumping your train, Brad, but I'm taking Sweet Sugaree for the upset.

Without question, the once beaten Balance, who has already won two Grade 1 races this year, will take a lot of beating. But she has morphed into a closer, and historically that isn't the style you want at Keeneland.

Saturday

Hawthorne: Illinois Derby
3-Year-Olds, 1 1/8 Miles

Approximate post: Eastern-5:12 p.m., Central-4:12 p.m., Mountain-3:12 p.m., Pacific-2:12 p.m.; Stickney, Ill., forecast: Sunny, 50¦

PPHORSELAST 3 BEYERSODDS
1Malameeze8778838-1
2Creative Force87636630-1
3Itsallboutthechase82878512-1
4Lewis Michael85879020-1
5Devilofarush92764630-1
6Mister Triester8794768-1
7Cause to Believe9892925-2
8Racketeer9796955-1
9My Golden Song9390755-1
10Sweetnorthernsaint1041041024-1

Track morning line odds

Keeneland: Ashland Stakes
Fillies, 3-Years-Old, 1 1/16 Miles

Approximate post: E-5:20 p.m., C-4:20 p.m., M-3:20 p.m., P-2:20 p.m.; Lexington, Ky., forecast: Chance of morning showers, 55¦

PPHORSELAST 3 BEYERSODDS
1Bushfire83388415-1
2Coolwind76507620-1
3Wait a While9086825-1
4Performing Diva7573718-1
5Sweet Sugaree84837020-1
6Balance9196883-5
7Saratoga Drive82807715-1
8Itty Bitty Pretty9091848-1

DRF odds

Oaklawn Park: Oaklawn Handicap
4 And Up, 1 1/8 Miles

Approximate post: E-7:05 p.m., C-6:05 p.m., M-5:05 p.m., P-4:05 p.m.; Hot Springs, Ar., forecast: Slight chance of morning thunderstorms, 65¦

PPHORSELAST 3 BEYERSODDS
1Buzzards Bay10890805-2
2Andromeda's Hero96969712-1
3Magnum112106763-1
4Gouldings Green969910115-1
5Purim10395974-1
6It's No Joke98107668-1
7Master Command8992887-2
8With Distinction441025012-1

Track morning line odds