Saturday's 57th running of the Rebel Stakes brings a field of eleven three-year-olds to contend for Kentucky Derby points (50-20-10-5) and their share of a $900,000 purse. The Rebel is the third of Oaklawn's four Kentucky Derby prep races. The listed Smarty Jones Stakes and the Southwest Stakes (GIII) came before it, with the Arkansas Derby (GI) the end of the Hot Springs spur of the Kentucky Derby trail. 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.
Eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah breezed home to win his three-year-old debut, the 2015 Rebel Stakes.
The race has been a rich source of classic horses. Three 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. American Pharoah (2015) did Smarty Jones one better, becoming the first horse since Affirmed to win the Triple Crown. In addition to Smarty Jones and American Pharoah, 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).
Morning lines were not available at original publish time.
Race 10: Rebel Stakes (G2), three-year-olds, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 6:06pm CDT
I figured by now that I'd be writing about this race as the American Pharoah Stakes, not the Rebel Stakes. Alas, that hasn't happened yet. (Get on it, Oaklawn!) Even if the race has not yet been named after its most notable winner, the race could also very easily be named after that one's trainer. Bob Baffert has had a hammerlock on the Rebel Stakes in recent years: he has won six of the last seven runnings, with the only gap when Will Take Charge blew up the tote in 2013. Even that year, another Baffert (Den's Legacy) hit the board.
Baffert has won the Rebel with all kinds of horses, from juvenile champions (Lookin At Lucky, American Pharoah) to horses without a stakes win to their name yet (Hoppertunity, Cupid). His offering this year, AMERICAN ANTHEM, falls into the latter category. He scored on debut, sprinting at Del Mar in December, and showed tactical speed in that debut. He returned to finish a game and gutsy second behind Gormley in the Sham, fighting on the front end for so much of that race. Though that put AMERICAN ANTHEM on the shelf for two months between that start and this one, he should be ready. He has been working sharply since a week and a half after the Sham, and comes into this race with a pair of six-furlong bullets at Santa Anita. Furthermore, AMERICAN ANTHEM gets jockey Mike Smith back in the irons. Though California-based, Smith knows how to win a Rebel or two -- or four, as the case may be. As long as Smith can keep the son of Bodemeister off the front-end gas (the exposed UNCONTESTED, upstart SILVER BULLION, California dark horse ROYAL MO, perhaps stretch-out sprinter MALAGACY), AMERICAN ANTHEM stands a good chance of keeping Bob Baffert in the Rebel winners' circle.
Southwest winner One Liner does not return in the Rebel (he is looking at either the Wood or the Blue Grass), but second-place PETROV does. He has been a clear second in both of the Oaklawn prep races to date -- but with only four starts under his girth, he still has enough upside to improve that he isn't necessarily a Second-Itis Type. He has shown an ability to handle a dry track or a wet one. PETROV can dependably sit off the pace, but still in touch, giving him a running style that suits both the course and the field he faces. And, despite being the most consistent of the local sophomore route set, PETROV will still be a good enough price thanks to the presence of the shippers.
Finally...last month in the Southwest, Todd Pletcher brought the wild card with One Liner. Here, he brings an even more confounding character to the cast: MALAGACY. Dropped in for $75,000 before being scratched out of that maiden claimer, MALAGACY rewarded the faith of Pletcher and owner Sumaya US Stables by steamrolling a five and a half furlong maiden special weight field in the Gulfstream slop. Stretched out an extra furlong from that, MALAGACY rolled again: sitting just off the pace, kicking on when asked, and rolling clear. The son of Shackleford has no shortage of talent -- but, the question is whether he can get two turns. Had he only posted gate-to-wire wins, this space would be a little more skeptical. But, with Castellano (who returns today) showing he can set him just off the pace and get him to fire, perhaps MALAGACY will prove a match for the first real challenge he has ever faced.
#7 AMERICAN ANTHEM
Longshot: Trainer Steve Asmussen sends a pair of runners here. Ricardo Santana is the regular rider on both, and turns up aboard LOOKIN AT LEE here. With LOOKIN AT LEE, you know what you're getting. There's some speed in front of him here, sure, and he'll be running at the end. But, he has proven himself to be That Horse Who Always Fills Out Exotics. Use him underneath in trifectas and superfectas, of course. But, for a contest, or a longer shot to add onto a multi-race? Take a look at the Asmussen B: #5 UNTRAPPED. Though he loses Santana, he gets a more than competent rider in the saddle: Irad Ortiz. UNTRAPPED comes in third off the lay, and turned in two solid second-place efforts in Derby preps at Fair Grounds in his two starts so far this year. This will be UNTRAPPED's first try at Oaklawn, but he has run well in all four of his career starts -- at three different tracks. He needs not take his track with him. And, his running style should suit: he will be rolling into the speed ahead of him, but can track close enough to the pace not to leave himself too much to do.
You can take "Picks & Ponderings" with you anytime, anywhere. You can get Twitter updates at @picksponderings for on-scene reports from Arlington International Racecourse. And you can get "Picks and Ponderings" in your e-mail by typing your email address in the box and clicking "Create Subscription." It's a FREE service, and you'll never get any unwanted spam.