Picks & Ponderings last week visited Arkansas for one race, the Grade Three Honeybee Stakes for fillies bound for the Kentucky Oaks that could reappear at the start of April in the G3 Fantasy Stakes, part of Oaklawn's Racing Festival of the South.
This week, Picks & Ponderings sticks with Oaklawn Park again for three graded stakes. These three stakes serve as our focus program this week. Each stakes on the card is also a feeder to a bigger stakes race during the Racing Festival of the South in April. The feature on the program in earnest is the Grade Two Rebel Stakes, which is the final local prep to Oaklawn's centerpiece race of the meet, the Grade One Arkansas Derby. Three-year-olds will face off in the Rebel. Additionally, the older females tangle in the Grade Two Azeri Stakes, the last local tune-up to the Grade One Apple Blossom Handicap. The program also features the Grade Three Razorback Handicap, a steppingstone to the Grade Two Oaklawn Handicap that this year is held on closing day of the Oaklawn meet, along with the Arkansas Derby.
Authorship of each race in this piece is denoted by initials at the end of the race, PM for Paul Mazur and NN for Nicolle Neulist. All races in this preview are slated for Saturday March 14. Morning line odds were not available at original publish time.
Edited on March 12 to add morning lines. Edited on March 13 to account for the scratch of SUGAR SHOCK in the G2 Azeri Stakes.
Oaklawn Park -- Race 7 -- G2 Azeri Stakes -- 1 1/16 miles on Dirt -- post time 4:21 pm CDT
Created in 1987 and staged every March or April at Oaklawn, the Grade 2, $300,000 Azeri Stakes began life as the more generically named Oaklawn Budweiser Breeders' Cup Handicap, a tie-in of Breeders' Cup sponsorship and purse boosts. The race remained with this namesake until 2005, when it honored Azeri. The Allen E. Paulson-owned and Laura de Seroux-trained mare (Mr. Prospector - Jade Hunter by Zodiac Miss) won the Apple Blossom three straight times, from 2002 to 2004 and dominated the female handicap division before Zenyatta, her closing runs and her winning streak her the talk of the town. In those same years she was named champion Older Female, and is a 2010 Hall of Fame inductee. Given Grade Two status last year, the race counts among its notable heroines as double winners Halo America (1995, 1997) and Heritage of Gold (2000, 2001) but more notably and recently including 2006 Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Round Pond (2006), 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace (2011), and another double winner in Tiz Miz Sue (2012, 2013).
2006 Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Round Pond wins the 2006 G3 Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn.
A horse from the Steve Asmussen barn draws the rail and is projected to be an odds-on favorite. Said horse is making her 2015 debut in this spot. Sophomore filly champion UNTAPABLE is said favorite, and she appears in the Azeri to start her four-year-old campaign. Her only blemish on her three-year-old campaign was a fifth against males in the Haskell, where she was doomed by a bad break and checked in with a fifth-place finish. It, and the chasm between her and the other three-year-old fillies, made her a unanimous champion. She has to face elders now, and without the cozy weight allowances given for being three. Still, UNTAPABLE looks to have landed a peachy spot. As she's been working at Fair Grounds and working swift clock times - not the usual Asmussen modus operandi - the feeling is she's cranked and ready. And beyond her this field passes for a G3. Pace wise she'll get the trip and while she likes to be free and clear on the outside, look for Velazquez to navigate this one to the outside, a tactic that worked in the Fair Grounds Oaks at three. While UNTAPABLE looks the part of a slam dunk, perhaps FLASHY AMERICAN can gain a podium finish. Winner of the G3 Sixty Sails at Hawthorne eleven months ago, she's at her best on dry dirt - which makes her effort two back worth discarding. She was in form enough last summer to hit the podium in races like the Fleur de Lis and the Delaware Handicap and that fourth at Indiana was a strong listed stakes for the group. Take away wet race tracks and she wasn't out of the superfecta all year in 2014. Second in the G3 Bayakoa Stakes over this local dirt that feeds into the race, she made a wide rally chasing an honest pace. MUFAJAAH was a neck to the better of FLASHY AMERICAN last time out in the local prep, and returns here. An Esquivel/Peitz production (no, this isn't Arlington where these two summer), MUFAJAAH gets knocked back a peg as the short field means the increased possibility that someone runs off and slows down the race, even though there is speed signed up. Maybe the photo goes the over way, but hard to look past a runner going second off the layoff and a runner that has four wins and a second in six tries over the local dirt.
#1 UNTAPABLE (1/2)
#6 FLASHY AMERICAN (5/1)
#5 MUFAJAAH (4/1)
Longshot: Original longshot-to-watch choice SUGAR SHOCK defected, and so will I. Nap time! --PM
Oaklawn Park -- Race 8 -- G3 Razorback Handicap -- 1 1/16 Miles on Dirt -- post time 4:57 pm CDT
A quarter million dollars is on the line in the "brother" race to the Azeri, the Grade Three Razorback Handicap. Sharing the name of the University of Arkansas's collegiate athletics teams, the Razorback Handicap was born in 1960 as a sprint, and next year went to the two-turn middle distance it's been ever since. Contested in March or April, the Razorback settled into the mile and a sixteenth distance in 1969 and was first graded in 1978. A G2 from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, it was downgraded to a Grade Three in 1997, and remains that grade today. Notable winners include past Hawthorne stakes namesake Royal Glint (1976), 1980 Belmont Stakes winner and Champion sophomore Temperance Hill (1981), Churchill Downs stakes nameplate Opening Verse (1990), 1992 Kentucky Derby winner Lil E. Tee (1993), and 2007 G3 Hanshin Cup winner Spotsgone (2010).
A horse from the Steve Asmussen barn draws the rail and is projected to be an odds-on favorite. Said horse is making his 2015 debut in this spot. Grade 2 West Virginia Derby winner TAPITURE is said favorite, and he appears in the Razorback to start his four-year-old campaign. While it feels like deja vu (or just really bad copy-and-paste), the circumstances are a lot different. For one, TAPITURE wasn't the champion of his division. And TAPITURE didn't end the three-year-old season with a victory. He ended it with a second in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile where he was unable to reel in Goldencents and looked weary and worn in the stretch. Even though he's got the fast works at Fair Grounds, TAPITURE doesn't tower over the field like Untapable does one race prior. Nor did TAPITURE establish himself as the best of the division. This space takes a firm stand against TAPITURE, finding him a vulnerable favorite in the Razorback. For an alternative, consider CARVE. CARVE seems to adore the Oaklawn surface - with four wins and two seconds in seven lifetime starts over it. He ran an admirable third last year in the Oaklawn Handicap behind Will Take Charge (who was still in form) and Revolutionary, a next out winner. After Oaklawn's meet ended he annexed the G3 Cornhusker and a minor stakes on West Virginia Derby Day. A mile and an eighth without something advantageous in his favor (like going wide on a wet Prairie Meadows Oval) is too far, and CARVE gets to be at his distance sweet spot - he's five of ten in the win column at the Razorback's mile and a sixteenth, including three straight wins. Trainer Bob Baffert has shipped horses to win the Rebel three of the past five years. Why not try one in the Razorback? MIDNIGHT HAWK comes to Oaklawn after defecting from last week's San Carlos Stakes. Runner-up last spring in the Illinois Derby, he reappeared after summertime boo-boos in the Damascus Stakes on Breeders' Cup weekend where a bad break cost him the race. A better break led to a podium finish at Del Mar, and with a good break he could project the controlling speed. Maybe not best at two turns, but still in capable hands. Should MIDNIGHT HAWK get pace pressure, RIDE ON CURLIN could be rolling in the lane. Though a bit of a plodder, he got a pace meltdown in the first start of 2015 and was second in the second start of the year with stretch interference. Should MIDNIGHT HAWK not want the lead, perhaps RIDE ON CURLIN takes it and clicks off grinding fractions. Should MIDNIGHT HAWK get pressured, the pace gets faster and he can close. Third start off the layoff (two wins, seven money finishes, fourteen starts for the trainer in this scenario) and he has never missed the trifecta in six career Oaklawn starts.
#6 CARVE (3/1)
#3 MIDNIGHT HAWK (6/1)
#7 RIDE ON CURLIN (3/1)
Longshot: Trying to figure out the front runner in this race is a nightmare. Is it MIDNIGHT HAWK stealing the race? Does CARVE press? Does RIDE ON CURLIN get it if everyone takes back? Does #4 I GOT IT ALL (20/1) get on the pace? Whatever the case, I GOT IT ALL has looked good at four down at Oaklawn, with podium finishes in his two starts over the Oaklawn dirt, the last in the Essex Stakes. He's been closer to the pace at two turns and could default into the lead, but has enough tactical ability to pull off and stalk. With a bullet work over the surface, he appears to still be in sharp form. The early March work adds more evidence that he can run back to what he's shown this year. For this Illinois-bred, it may be good enough to make noise in the G3 Razorback. --PM
Oaklawn Park -- Race 10 -- G2 Rebel Stakes -- 1 1/16 miles on Dirt -- post time 6:06 pm CDT
A field of seven three-year-old males will contend for Kentucky Derby points (50-20-10-5) and their share of a $750,000 purse in Saturday's 55th running of the Rebel Stakes. The Rebel is the third of Oaklawn's four Kentucky Derby prep races. The listed Smarty Jones Stakes and the Southwest Stakes (GIII) come before it, with the Arkansas Derby (GI) still to come. The Rebel Stakes has been remarkably consistent through its history, as races go: since being instituted in 1961 it has always been restricted to three-year-olds, and has always been run at 1 1/16 miles. Two winners of the Rebel Stakes have returned later that spring to take the blanket of roses. Sunny's Halo (1983) made his three-year-old debut in the Rebel Stakes, won it, and then annexed the Arkansas Derby as well before his Kentucky Derby score. 2004 Champion Three Year Old Male Smarty Jones (2004) swept the Southwest, the Rebel, and the Arkansas Derby before winning both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. In addition to Smarty Jones, four other Rebel Stakes winners have also ended their year as Champion Three Year Old Male: Belmont winner Temperance Hill (1980), Preakness winners Curlin (2007) and Lookin at Lucky (2010), and late-season dynamo Will Take Charge (2013).
Curlin wins the 2007 Rebel Stakes, his second career race, by 5 1/4 emphatic lengths. Curlin sired two of this year's Rebel Stakes entrants, Bold Conquest and Sakima.
Initially, this race was billed as a showdown between the 2014 Champion Two Year Old Male AMERICAN PHAROAH and the Champion Two Year Old Filly, Take Charge Brandi. However, with Take Charge Brandi off the Oaks trail with a bone chip in her knee, the attention leading up to the race has fallen squarely on AMERICAN PHAROAH's three-year-old debut, and trainer Bob Baffert. Baffert has had a stranglehold on the Rebel in recent years, winning four of the last five editions of the race. This year his entry looks as formidable as any of them, despite the fact that he has not seen a starter since September. In anything even vaguely resembling his two-year-old form AMERICAN PHAROAH is a formidable-looking speed horse, and that holds tenfold in a race in which he looks to be lone speed. In this race, he looks to be just that: the only other horse in this field who has even once led at either of the first two calls was TIZWONDERFULCREEK, who did so in his debut, and has only actually won from off the pace. MADEFROMLUCKY seems the most credible candidate to stalk him from fairly close to the pace, and either BOLD CONQUEST or SAKIMA could try, but any of those runners would have to make a significant improvement on what they have done already at three to match AMERICAN PHAROAH's league, and it would seem a suicide mission to actually send against him. The layoff is the only question surrounding AMERICAN PHAROAH, but the combination of his long workouts and trainer Bob Baffert's 27% record off lays off three months or longer make the lay as small a concern as it could possibly be. With any other credible speed in the field, he would be tempting to play against at the inevitably short price. As lone speed, this space can find no credible argument not to select AMERICAN PHAROAH on top.
Among the rest of the field, first-time stakes runner MADEFROMLUCKY has the most upside. He stalked relatively close to the pace to win an allowance race at Gulfstream last out. That race was his first start for trainer Todd Pletcher, a conditioner with a strong track record with shippers (25% wins, 54% in the money). MADEFROMLUCKY's allowance win was at nine furlongs, making him the only runner who cuts back in distance for this race. He did win his only attempt so far at the 1 1/16 mile distance of the Rebel, scoring a convincing maiden win at Gulfstream in December going that distance. In the unlikely event that AMERICAN PHAROAH does not come back anything like his old self or someone else in the field decides to pressure him hard, MADEFROMLUCKY has the best chance of getting first run. Since he has not been tested particularly hard since the light came on, he also has more room to improve than the rest of this field. THE TRUTH OR ELSE also has some appeal, particularly with some rain in the forecast over the next few days. He handled the Oaklawn slop well when he finished second in the Southwest Stakes last out. The off-pace style will not likely help here, but his maiden win came from significantly closer to the pace than that last effort. He is another one with a good chance to improve, as this is just his second race as a sophomore, and his second race off a three-month layoff.
#4 AMERICAN PHAROAH (1/2)
#2 MADEFROMLUCKY (6/1)
#1 THE TRUTH OR ELSE (4/1)
Longshot: The board for this race may look a bit like the board in the most recent edition of the Malibu or the Big Cap, with AMERICAN PHAROAH slammed at the windows, and the rest all at boxcar odds. Among the runners who were not tabbed above, #5 BOLD CONQUEST (8/1) has the most to recommend him. He has a run over the Oaklawn track, having gotten up for a belated fourth behind Far Right in the Southwest Stakes. In both other attempts at this distance, he has hit the board. He has also shown an ability to stay closer to the pace than he was last out, having garnered his maiden win from a stalking spot. That will be valuable with a race that will so likely be a lone-speed proposition. BOLD CONQUEST will have to improve to beat out the top three, but trainer Steve Asmussen's 20% record with runners second off a lay suggests he could very well take a step forward. --NN
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