By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
This Saturday, the road to the Kentucky Derby continues as eight talented three-year-olds attempt to take another major step toward Louisville in the $600,000 Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn Park, while across the country at Santa Anita, a wide-open field of older fillies and mares will battle for supremacy of their local division in the $350,000 Santa Margarita Stakes (gr. I). It’s a day of racing you definitely won’t want to miss—let’s take a look at who’s running!
Rebel Stakes (gr. II)
There’s little doubt that Tapiture will be favored off of his eye-catching victory in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) at Oaklawn last month, and the Steve Asmussen-trainee appears poised to add a third consecutive graded stakes victory to his résumé. However, it must be noted that Tapiture’s 4 ¼-length triumph in the Southwest was aided greatly by a perfect trip, in which he saved ground throughout while tracking moderate fractions.
In contrast, Southwest runner-up Strong Mandate had a nightmarish trip that day, which began when he got caught extremely wide on the first turn and was forced to check in traffic. As a result, the normally speedy colt found himself in last place for a few moments early in the race. This forced Strong Mandate’s jockey to make a powerful run on the far outside, circling much of the field to secure a position about one length off the lead. Unfortunately, he was still forced to race four wide around the final turn, and went even wider entering the homestretch. With this in mind, I can forgive the way Strong Mandate weaved down the homestretch while switching leads repeatedly. It’s also important to note that the Southwest was Strong Mandate’s first start of the year, and that he had missed some training time before the race due to inclement weather. With a pair of solid workouts under his belt since the Southwest, I think Strong Mandate has what it takes to turn the tables on Tapiture.
On a similar note, I also like Ride On Curlin in the Rebel, as he was caught even wider than Strong Mandate on the first turn in the Southwest, yet still held on to be third after tracking the pace down the backstretch. Having drawn gate two in the Rebel, Ride On Curlin should be able to work out a much better trip on Saturday.
Shipping in from California are Kobe’s Back, who looked tremendous while winning Santa Anita’s seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) last time out; and Hoppertunity, who was most recently fourth in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) at Fair Grounds for trainer Bob Baffert. While I have great respect for the former, he’s unlikely to encounter a very fast pace in the Rebel, and that could hinder his chances of success as he attempts to stretch out around two turns. But in regard to Hoppertunity, it’s hard to forget the way Baffert has dominated the Oaklawn Derby preps in recent years, so it might be wise to give Hoppertunity a long look – especially since his chances in the Risen Star may have been compromised by a change in running style.
Let me also take a brief moment to mention Street Strategy, who was very impressive when he beat older maidens in a one-mile maiden special weight at Oaklawn on January 30th. He will retain the services of jockey Calvin Borel, and figures to be overlooked a bit in the betting, despite fine form at Oaklawn. Don’t count him out!
Selection: Strong Mandate
Santa Margarita Stakes (gr. I)
Given the way that California’s best older fillies and mares have been exchanging victories all winter, I wouldn’t be surprised see any one of the eight horses in this race emerge on top. I’m intrigued by a longshot named Stanwyck, winner of the Turnback the Alarm Handicap (gr. III) at Belmont last fall. Trained by John Shirreffs, Stanwyck enters the Santa Margarita off of a non-threatening third in the Santa Maria Stakes (gr. II) last month, but a slow start and a moderate pace up front didn’t help her chances.
Front-running Iotapa and Let Faith Arise, the 1-2 finishers in the Santa Maria, are back for a rematch on Saturday, but I expect to see Fiftyshadesofhay flash more speed (while breaking from the rail) than she has in her last two starts, and that could help ensure a faster pace for Stanwyck. It could also help Let Faith Arise, a very versatile filly that flashed good tracking speed when second in the Santa Maria, as well as a powerful late kick when second in the La Canada Stakes (gr. III) two starts back. With this versatility and consistency in mind, she is my pick to win, with great respect to Stanwyck as a longshot to hit the board.
Selection: Let Faith Arise
Who do you like this weekend?