Oaklawn's spur of the Derby trail continues this Saturday with the Rebel Stakes. Originally slated as a race with a $1,000,000 purse and Kentucky Derby points allotted 50-20-10-5 to its top four finishers, the number of horses pointed to the Rebel mushroomed after the San Felipe (G2) at Santa Anita was cancelled. In response, Oaklawn split the Rebel Stakes into two divisions, each offering $750,000 in purse money. Since each division offers 75% of the originally planned purse money, each division offers 75% of the originally planned Derby points: 37.5-15-7.5-3.75 points, respectively, for the top four finishers. Based on recent years, the points should still be enough for the winner to be well positioned for a place in the Kentucky Derby.
Inaugurated in 1961, the Rebel Stakes currently serves as the third of four steps on Oaklawn's road to the Kentucky Derby. The race has constantly featured top-class horses. American Pharoah (2015) began his sophomore campaign in the race -- a year that continued with a Triple Crown win, a Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) win, and both Champion Three Year Old Male and Horse of the Year honours. Though he is the only Triple Crown winner to have won the Rebel Stakes, a host of other three-year-old champions have won this race, including Temperence Hill (1980), Smarty Jones (2004), Curlin (2007), Lookin at Lucky (2010), and Will Take Charge (2013).
American Pharoah skims over the slop in the 2015 Rebel Stakes.
Other winners of the Rebel, though not three-year-old champions, have won the Eclipse for later work. Vanlandingham (1984) won Grade 1 races on both dirt and turf the next year, and was named 1985's champion older male. Though Victory Gallop (1998) also won the Belmont at three, his Eclipse came the next year as champion older male, on the strength of wins in the Stephen Foster (G1) and the Whitney (G1). Lawyer Ron (2007) returned at four as well, and his 2008 Champion Older Male campaign was highlighted by a pair of Grade 1 wins at Saratoga, in the Whitney and the Woodward.
Saturday, March 16 - Oaklawn Park
Race 8: Division 1 of the Rebel Stakes (G2), three-year-olds, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 4:57pm CST
Trainer Bob Baffert has been a monster in the Rebel Stakes; he has won the race six times, most recently with Cupid in 2016. He has proven time and time again that he can get his horses ready to fire in Arkansas, even if the race marks their three-year-old debut. This year, he comes in with the heavy favourites in each division: IMPROBABLE in this one, and two-year-old champion GAME WINNER in the other.
Division 1 of the Rebel is the less deep division of the race -- though, what it does have is plenty of speed. That makes IMPROBABLE, already the most imposing horse on paper, even more imposing. In three starts last year, he has been able to stalk off the pace and take over every single time, including when he stretched out to a route in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) last December. He keeps rider Drayden Van Dyke from all of those outings, and Van Dyke should be able to keep him off the contested pace and time the move just right. IMPROBABLE has also proven he can ship; his second start came in the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs. This flashy son of City Zip won't be a price -- 1/5 with a side of bridgejumpers seems more likely -- but between his race record and his trainer's sparkling record in this race, it seems like trying to beat him is being cute for cute's sake.
Among the rest, LONG RANGE TODDY appeals the most. The son of Take Charge Indy has remained under the radar on this year's Derby trail despite a consistent resume, one that includes hitting the board in both of Oaklawn's prep races so far. He has tactical speed, and he drew the 2 hole instead of the parking lot like he did in the Southwest (G3). Though the rider change on LONG RANGE TODDY was a bit unexpected, it's not a bad move -- especially given how well rider Jon Court has done in a few recent starts with Asmussen recently.
GALILEAN is another one of the West Coast shippers. Though all four of his starts to date have come in stakes, three of them have been California-bred races, and none were graded. This is his first try against some of the better horses of his crop. With those being the drawbacks, however, there are several reasons GALILEAN could rise to the challenge. His form has improved with distance. And, from a pace perspective, he showed last time out in the Cal Cup Derby that he can actually sit off the speed instead of just setting or battling on the pace. That skill should serve GALILEAN well, between the outside draw and the pace in front of him.
#9 IMPROBABLE (3/5)
#2 LONG RANGE TODDY (10/1)
#8 GALILEAN (3/1)
Longshot: Other than LONG RANGE TODDY, who I like too much to relegate to the longshot section, it's hard to get excited about any of the longshots. EXTRA HOPE is the best of the horses not discussed in detail above, but he won't be a longshot by any stretch of the imagination, and he'll have to send from the fence in a race with quite a bit of pace. As for one who has some upside to clunk along for a piece? Perhaps #6 NINTH STREET (50/1) is the way to go. Yes, he'll need a huge step forward third off the lay. But, last time out when he faltered in the Southwest, he sat closer to the pace than suits him. Perhaps the removal of blinkers and the switch to trainer Asmussen's "A" rider Ricardo Santana will get him back to basics -- sitting a little further off the pace and making a well-timed move into a lively pace. The longshot writer is under no delusions that NINTH STREET can win, but as a huge price for the lower rungs of exotics? These gossamer threads make him more appealing than anyone else.
Race 10: Division 2 of the Rebel Stakes (G2), three-year-olds, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 6:06pm CST
Bob Baffert trainee GAME WINNER, last year's two-year-old champion, didn't set a hoof wrong in four starts last year. He won from near the pace, and from off of it. He proved he could stretch out to two turns, with commanding victories in both the American Pharoah (G1) and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1). In that latter victory, he proved he could ship. Even though this is GAME WINNER's first start this year, between what he showed last year and the fact that his trainer is so good at getting horses ready to fire off the bench, it's hard to get excited about opposing him.
Among the rest, the most intriguing horse is in the four-deep Asmussen brigade, LAUGHING FOX. The son of Union Rags tries stakes company for the first time today, but it looks like the right time to do it. Even though he struggled in a pair of one-turn starts at age two, he has found his sea legs this winter at Oaklawn. He stretched out to two turns for the first time in a maiden race in January, won it, then checked off his first-level condition the next month. Rider Ricardo Santana remains with LAUGHING FOX today, and should have options about where to place him depending on how strong the early pace unfolds. All in all, he looks like an improving horse getting good at the right time.
OUR BRAINTRUST, who has good tactical speed, is the only horse cutting back in trip. Last time out, he tried two turns for the first time in five starts -- in the nine-furlong Withers (G3). He didn't win, but he fell only a neck short behind distance-bred Tax and pacesetter Not That Brady. The Mark Casse trainee adds blinkers for the first time today; Casse's 20% win rate with first-time blinkers suggests he knows what he is doing when he makes the move. The jockey change on OUR BRAINTRUST also appeals: rider David Cohen is a 23% rider at Oaklawn, proving he knows how to ride the oval, and has won twice in seven starts with Casse over the last two months. All in all, OUR BRAINTRUST looks like a fit and relatively well-seasoned horse with upside in this spot.
Two of the California shippers deserve a brief mention, GUNMETAL GRAY and OMAHA BEACH.
GUNMETAL GRAY looks like a consummate underneath type in this sort of spot. As opposed to several others in this field, who still have questions to answer, we know what we're getting with GUNMETAL GRAY: a closer who reliably fires. He would be a bit more intriguing in Division 1 of the Rebel, with more horses who need to go. But, in this division? He seems a consummate underneath type, who will do his best running late, and nab yet another underneath share, likely behind his old foe GAME WINNER.
OMAHA BEACH, we'll take a stand against this time. There has been buzz on him for a while, and he finally broke his maiden last time out, in his fifth career start. But, how much stock can we put in his resounding maiden win? He did it over slop, and on a cutback to a sprint. He did it with Flavien Prat riding, but Prat turns up on GUNMETAL GRAY instead. Maybe he rises to the challenge? But, as the likely second-favourite, and with more attractive or intriguing foes in the field, he'll have to prove this skeptic wrong.
#5 GAME WINNER (4/5)
#2 LAUGHING FOX (10/1)
#7 OUR BRAINTRUST (6/1)
Longshot: #10 CAPTAIN VON TRAPP (15/1) is another member of the Asmussen brigade, and another who has found his form at Oaklawn Park. He broke his maiden two starts back, going six furlongs in the mud on February 8, in his fourth career start. It was his first start over the track, his first off a winter layoff, and his first with blinkers. He then proved it was no fluke on March 2, when he stretched out to a mile over a dry track in Hot Springs and won right back. Ramon Vazquez rode CAPTAIN VON TRAPP for both of these starts; he returns today. There are some questions, of course -- he steps up to a stakes race for the first time, goes another sixteenth of a mile, and has to carve out a trip from an outside gate. But, at the likely price, he appeals as a later-blooming horse (by Derby Trail standards, of course) with good connections and local form.
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