We visited Oaklawn last week for the Honeybee (GIII), a Kentucky Oaks prep. We return this week for its corresponding Derby prep, the Grade II Rebel Stakes, as well as a pair of stakes for older horses. The three races have several things in common, despite the age difference. All three are graded. All three cover a mile and a sixteenth over dirt. And, all three are quite rich local preps for even richer stakes races next month during the Racing Festival of the South.
Oaklawn will be our only set of previews this week. Given our primary focus on the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks points races, we originally planned to preview the Sunland Derby and the Sunland Park Oaks. However, those were cancelled for the year. There are three-year-old stakes races at Sunland this Sunday, but they do not carry Derby points. Thus, we have elected to focus on the graded action at Oaklawn.
Authors of individual race previews are denoted by initials: PM for Paul Mazur, and NN for Nicolle Neulist. All races in this preview are scheduled for Saturday, March 19 at Oaklawn Park. Morning lines were not available at original publish time. Updated March 17 to add morning lines.
Race 7: Azeri Stakes (GII), four-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 4:21 CDT
This race has always been contested at 1/16 miles over the Oaklawn dirt. It held a Grade III designation from 1990-1994 and again from 2000-2013. Since 2014, it has been a Grade II. It is the local prep for the Grade I Apple Blossom Stakes, scheduled for April 15. Inaugurated in 1987 as the Oaklawn Budweiser Breeders’ Cup Handicap, this race was renamed in 2005 to honour Azeri. Azeri, won the Apple Blossom Handicap three times, 2002 through 2004. In each of those years she won the Eclipse award for Champion Older Mare, and she also won Horse of the Year in 2002. Azeri entered the Hall of Fame in 2010.
Though this race eventually took her name, Azeri never actually prepped for the Apple Blossom in it. However, 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace began her crowning season here. She followed it up with a win in the Apple Blossom, and won two more Grade I races that year. She beat her own sex in the Beldame, and beat males in the Woodward. Round Pond, winner of the Azeri in 2006, capped off that year by winning the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. To this day, she remains the only Azeri Stakes winner to have also won a Breeders’ Cup race.
Havre de Grace romps in the 2011 Azeri Stakes.
The elephant in the room, of course, is UNTAPABLE. People turn their noses up at her season last year, since she did not show the brilliance she did during her three-year-old season. However, she started six times against graded company, was never out of the trifecta, and was only out of the exacta once. On figures, she stands out against this field, and she acquitted herself well in her pair of starts at Oaklawn last fall. It is also a good sign that Florent Geroux turns up in the irons. Perhaps he will be a better fit than John Velazquez was last year — and, it shows trainer Steve Asmussen is taking the long view (past Oaklawn) with her, since Geroux is excellent but not any kind of Hot Springs regular. That said, UNTAPABLE fell just a bit short at 1/9 in the Azeri last year, and may need a race again this year. Cover her defensively, do not do an intra-race exotic without her, but there will be better bets in the win pool.
CALL PAT won the Bayakoa, and rallied into a pace that was not excessively fast in order to do so. This stands out, since the pace of the Azeri is a bit of a question mark. HIGH DOLLAR WOMAN is one-way speed, but several others (SARAH SIS, MESHELL, UNTAPABLE) have shown speed at times. CALL PAT is a confirmed closer — but she is one who regularly fires, and her late pace stands out against this set. There is a 35% chance of rain on Saturday morning, as of Wednesday evening’s forecast; should the track be wet, CALL PAT’s 3-1-1-1 off-track record speaks well for her. Form-wise, she comes second off the lay for Brad Cox, a trainer who wins a quarter of the time in that situation. All the way around, CALL PAT is a solid choice, and she stands to be a better price than UNTAPABLE.
A close second behind in the Bayakoa came crack Illinois-bred STREAMLINE. The winner of the Pippin Stakes at Oaklawn two starts back, STREAMLINE stalked MESHELL, looked safe, but could not hold off a freight train named CALL PAT in the final few jumps. In addition to her current form, STREAMLINE’s versatility also appeals. She has been able to win races going wire-to-wire, rallying from half a dozen lengths off the pace or anywhere in between. This gives STREAMLINE some outs, given the uncertain pace scenario. Granted, her best work against the classiest company has come from a stalking place — rarely a bad running style to want to have. STREAMLINE will likely have to take a step up to win this, but it is not out of the realm of possibility for this consistent filly, and she should be the right price to boot.
One note about SARAH SIS. This space will stand against her. Her game second-place finish in the six-furlong American Beauty showed she could be a force at four…but the way she showed nothing in the Bayakoa suggests her best may come in sprints. Though she does have a pair of wins at a mile and a sixteenth, she has shown her most brilliant work at one turn. Pass on SARAH SIS this time around — but keep this Ingrid Mason trainee in your back pocket for something like the Madison, the Ballerina, or the TCA later this year.
#1 CALL PAT (3/1)
#4 STREAMLINE (6/1)
#7 UNTAPABLE (1/1)
Longshot: There is a 35% chance of rain Saturday morning in Hot Springs, as of Wednesday evening’s weather report. The longshot depends on whether that comes to fruition. If the Azeri goes over an off track, give #8 HIGH DOLLAR WOMAN (30/1) a long look. She has never finished out of the exacta in three starts over an off track, including a wire-to-wire victory in the Indiana Oaks (GII) last fall. She comes in second off the lay for Steve Hobby (a 19% trainer with positive ROI in that situation), and gets the ever-adaptable Joe Bravo in the irons for the first time. For a price, if the track is muddy, why not take long odds on this slop monster?
However, if the track is dry, HIGH DOLLAR WOMAN loses all appeal. Instead, consider #5 MESHELL (15/1). She has never won at Oaklawn — but she has never missed the board in four tries over the course. Her line over a fast dirt track is a dependable 8-3-1-3. In her only attempt at a mile and a sixteenth, she was third. That came last out in the Bayakoa, behind CALL PAT and STREAMLINE. That day she set the fractions and dug in late, and Chris Emigh returns to the irons from that effort. Though that was a frontrunning trip, she also has form from a stalking or even midpack spot. This versatility will do her good; though HIGH DOLLAR WOMAN is the only one-way speed in the field, SARAH SIS, STREAMLINE, and even UNTAPABLE have shown speed at times. Either way, MESHELL has outs, and is consistent enough to be in for a share. — NN
Race 8: Razorback Handicap (GIII), four-year-olds and up, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 4:57 CDT
$350,000 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).
You wonder if IDOLO PORTENO can handle racing north of the equator as he makes first start in America, but he has been working regularly at Oaklawn, does own Grade 1 victories in South America, and has a zippy (with respect to clock time) workout earlier in the month. The Ignacio Correras trainee gets Florent Geroux to ride, and Geroux has quietly became the money rider for the Midwest circuit as he’s been wintering in New Orleans. In a race where the front speed has questions (Can SHOTGUN KOWBOY get back on the beam? Can DOMAIN’S RAP keep up his solid form?), perhaps it’s the import that does well. We at Picks & Ponderings always give a shout-out to the Illinois-breds doing well, as DOMAIN’S RAP was bred by Arkansas native and Fairmount kingpin William Stiritz, but now resides in the Danny Caldwell barn and has gotten into flaming hot form. DOMAIN’S RAP does have a chance if he settles into his usual “stalk up close” trip, but this space finds his passing gear lacking and wonders if he’ll get rated to death. DOMAIN’S RAP can only do his best when he gets said stalk-up-close trip. Instead, try the other Illinois-bred. LOOKS TO SPARE made a nice living last year blowing up toteboards in places he shouldn’t have, like on WV Derby Day and in the Clark. It’s the first start of 2016 for the former nickel claimer gone good, and one can line out his work in the Jockey Club Gold Cup that was above his competitive level and the BC Marathon that was beyond his normal distance. He sports a nifty 10: 4-3-1 record at the distance and while he’s done his work closing, he does – way back in the form – show an ability to get the lead if no one wants it, and that could be the case. Don’t expect a huge toteboard price given a three-pronged coupled entry. Oaklawn in the later stages of their meet is often when Steve Asmussen wins races in bunches, and CARVE sees the starter here. The Asmussen-conditioned CARVE hasn’t been to the winner’s circle since last year’s Fifth Season Stakes and came first off the layoff in the Essex Handicap – this race’s local prep – that was won by LA MACCHINA (one from the Umarov brigade). The team is white hot in the last two months of the meet (half of it the aforementioned Asmussen), and his local record of ten starts, four wins, eight podium finishes also makes him worth considering.
#5 IDOLO PORTENO (15/1)
#1A LOOKS TO SPARE (8/1)
#3 CARVE (4/1)
Longshot: The top selection is already the longest shot on the morning line. The longshot writer had his day. — PM
Race 10: Rebel Stakes (GII), three-year-olds, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 6:06 CDT
This portion of the piece is jointly submitted for “Handicapper’s Corner” at Thorofan.
This year’s edition of the Rebel Stakes offers a purse of $900,000 (an increase of $150,000 over last year’s edition), as well as Road to the Kentucky Derby points (50-20-10-5) to the horses placed first through fourth. The Rebel is the third of Oaklawn’s four Kentucky Derby prep races. The listed Smafrty 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.
Three winners of the Rebel Stakes have eventually won the Kentucky Derby. American Pharoah (2015) kicked off his three-year-old campaign last year with a facile victory in the Rebel, and won the Arkansas Derby even more easily. The rest of the story goes almost without saying: he won the first Triple Crown in 37 years, the Haskell, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and the title of Horse of the Year. Sunny’s Halo (1983) made his three-year-old debut in the Rebel Stakes, won it, then annexed both the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby. 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. Beyond American Pharoah, one other Rebel winner has finished his season as Horse of the Year: Preakness and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Curlin (2007). Other than those two and Smarty Jones, three other Rebel Stakes winners have also ended their year as Champion Three Year Old Male: Belmont winner Temperence Hill (1980), Preakness winner Lookin at Lucky (2010), and late-season dynamo Will Take Charge (2013).
American Pharoah glides home in the slop to win the 2015 Rebel Stakes.
Death, taxes, and Bob Baffert winning the Rebel Stakes. Since 2010, Baffert has won five of the last six renewals of the Rebel and has a chance to become this race’s leading trainer outright at six victories with a win. CUPID is Baffert’s hope, and CUPID scratched out of the San Felipe Stakes that Danzing Candy took control of and asserted himself as a top three-year-old. So CUPID ships to Oaklawn with hopes at grabbing his fair share of the nine hundred grand in the Rebel. What CUPID will get is a pace to chase into – someone in the fourteen horse field will go to the front and it projects to be AMERICAN DUBAI or SIDING SPRING. If you find those names familiar, they were the pace controllers in the Southwest – the lead-in to this race. Given that there could be an overreaction of pace and the race could have dawdling fractions, CUPID did close into :48 4/5 and 1:13 interior fraction when graduating – a full one to two seconds slower than the Southwest. Even though it’s not the same surface, the is that if CUPID is fine if an honest pace materializes or if it doesn’t. Martin Garcia comes east to ride. SUDDENBREAKINGNEWS turned in a nifty rally to that solid pace last time in the Rebel and returns in this spot. He certainly makes sense in this field, and stands to be favored off solid humans and that Southwest score. In a prep season that has seen more chalk than a calculus lecture, SUDDENBREAKINGNEWS has the figures, form, and performance to be the wagering favorite and that – if you believe trends hold – makes him worth playing. So does winning a similar race a month ago. A double digit post is no picnic, but he did come from the parking lot in the Southwest and a carbon copy of his effort can defeat this bunch. Quite usable for the multi-race wagers but that post makes this space a bit less bullish. MADTAP might just get the coziest trip of all in the Rebel Stakes. He locked horns in the early stages of his allowance race last time out and despite a wide trip, still coasted home to an easy score. The Rebel will be the first time in stakes company for MADTAP, who is brought to you by the Winchell/Asmussen owner/trainer team that have had success here before with Untapable (2015 Apple Blossom) and Tapiture (2014 Southwest). Why not another one, who – like the prior stakes winner – has Tapit as a sire. There is an upward progression of speed figures with MADTAP and another step forward makes him a player.
#3 CUPID (7/2)
#14 SUDDENBREAKINGNEWS (3/1)
#7 MADTAP (6/1)
Longshot: #11 CUTACORNER (30/1) was 23-1 in the Southwest Stakes and stands to be in that neighborhood again. His Southwest was a nightmare of a trip where he was five wide into the first turn and affected by Z ROYAL taking up. CUTACORNER gets a rider switch to Alex Birzer in the Rebel Stakes, and this Jack Van Berg trainee has brought his wide rallies each time in his late two-year-old and early three-year-old starts. Sometimes it works (two back in an N2L), sometimes it doesn’t. The team hits at 50% in the money in the last two months. This space is giving a second chance, and the odds will make a flutter on a “trip notes horse” worthwhile. — PM
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