Can Madtap Upset the Rebel Stakes?

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Take a deep breath, folks! With just seven weeks remaining until the Kentucky Derby, the $900,000 Rebel Stakes (gr. II) is the last Derby prep race that falls before the start of the "final prep races" on March 26th. In other words, from here on out, the road to the Derby is going to get intense--I hope you're ready for the ride!

As is fitting for such a milestone on the Derby trail, the Rebel Stakes has drawn a terrific field of fourteen colts and geldings with Derby aspirations. It promises to be a great betting race, so without further ado, let's take a look at the entries!

#HorseJockeyTrainerLast race
1CreatorRicardo Santana, Jr.Steve Asmussen1st Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)
RalisMario GutierrezDoug O’Neill14th Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) (VIDEO)
4CupidMartin GarciaBob Baffert1st Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)
DiscreetnessJon CourtWilliam Fires7th Southwest Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
6Siding SpringJoe Rocco Jr.Mark Casse5th Southwest Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
7Spikes ShirlJesus CastanonDallas Stewart2nd Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)
MadtapCorey NakataniSteve Asmussen1st Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)
8American DubaiChris LanderosRodney Richards3rd Southwest Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
Z RoyalRamon VasquezD. Wayne Lukas8th Southwest Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
Gray SkyFlorent GerouxD. Wayne Lukas2nd Allowance (VIDEO)
CutacornerA. BirzerJack Van Berg9th Southwest Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
10WhitmoreIrad Ortiz, Jr.Ron Moquett2nd Southwest Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
11Cherry WineCorey LanerieDale Romans1st Allowance Optioanl Claiming (VIDEO)
12SuddenbreakingnewsLuis QuinonezDonnie K. Von Hemel1st Southwest Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)

Trainer Bob Baffert has absolutely dominated this race in recent years, winning five of the last six renewals with talented horses like American Pharoah, Secret Circle, and Lookin at Lucky. Baffert hasn't enjoyed quite the same success in Oaklawn's early Derby preps this season, but for the Rebel, I think he's sending his best chance so far this year with Cupid. The son of Tapit lost his first two starts sprinting at Santa Anita, but turned in a spectacular performance when stretched out to 8.5 furlongs in a maiden race on February 7th. On that day, Cupid settled a couple lengths off the lead through slow fractions of :48.62 and 1:13.12, then unleashed a terrific burst of acceleration to roar past the leaders and draw off with power to win by 5 ¼ lengths while hardly asked for any run at all.

Visually, Cupid's performance was exceptional, and my feeling is that he has the potential to be among the best three-year-olds in the country. However, he could be in for a tricky trip while breaking from post three in a full field, since his preferred running style of settling a few lengths off the lead could cause him to get bottled up in traffic. A ground-saving trip wouldn't be a bad thing, but it could be tricky to find racing room in the homestretch.

Suddenbreakingnews, who unleashed a tremendous late rally to win the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) at Oaklawn in last-to-first fashion, might start as the favorite. Trained by Donnie Von Hemel, Suddenbreakingnews is a nose and a neck away from being unbeaten in six starts, and he was absolutely full of run in the final furlong of the Southwest Stakes. He won that race from post thirteen, so drawing post fourteen in the Rebel shouldn't be too much of an issue, but it's worth noting that he got a great pace setup in the Southwest and might not encounter such an ideal pace on Saturday.

Additionally, the Southwest was contested over a drying-out track labeled "good," and while Suddenbreakingnews is proven over fast tracks, I think the wet track may have helped his chances in the Southwest, and a drier track on Saturday is one more question mark that he's facing. For these reasons--as well as the fact that Suddenbreakingnews will carry top weight of 122 pounds--I'll play against Suddenbreakingnews for the top spot in the Rebel, even though I really respect his talent and view him as a major Kentucky Derby contender.

Whitmore and American Dubai, the second- and third-place finishers in the Southwest Stakes, are two other runners to strongly consider. In the Southwest, Whitmore stayed closer to the fast pace than Suddenbreakingnews did and was moving like a winner on the far turn before flattening out slightly in the homestretch. It was still a very nice effort, and the fact that Whitmore has shown lots of tactical speed and doesn't have to close from way back is a major positive--if the pace is modest in the Rebel, Whitmore can adapt and stay closer to the lead if necessary. But he did draw very wide in post twelve, and any strategy short of dropping to the back of the pack or sending straight to the lead could result in a wide trip.

As for American Dubai, he pressed the pace in the Southwest and ran a great race in defeat, leading past the eighth pole before tiring to finish just a half-length behind Whitmore. That was only the third start of his career, and with a couple of strong workouts under his belt since then--including five furlongs in 1:00 3/5 on March 5th--he could be poised to take another step forward on Saturday. He showed in his maiden win that he doesn't have to be part of the early pace to be successful, and if he can settle a little better this Saturday, I think he could be very tough to run down.

But all that said, my selection to win the Rebel is Madtap. The first four starts of his career were nothing to write home about, but he showed steady improvement and took a nice step forward when third to Dazzling Gem and Gray Sky in an 8.5-furlong allowance race on February 13th at Oaklawn.

However, in Madtap's most recent start, he took a dramatic step forward to stamp himself as a serious contender for the Rebel. In an 8.5-furlong allowance optional claiming race at Oaklawn, he showed excellent speed while helping to set fractions of :23.17 and :46.60, then took command in the homestretch to draw off powerfully and win by six lengths in the sharp time of 1:43.85 seconds. At first glance, this is a very impressive performance, but it gets even better when you consider that he was wide throughout the race and ran the last sixteenth in :06.14 seconds, a stellar fraction that shows he was actually accelerating in the homestretch as opposed to slowing down.

Just as impressive is that Madtap was very relaxed throughout the race and allowed horses to rally past him on the inside without getting rank and trying to catch them, which bodes well for his chances of settling off the leaders this Saturday. He's drawn well in post seven and should be able to work out a great trip stalking the pace without racing too wide, and if he can repeat his allowance effort on just two weeks rest, I think he'll be the horse to beat. As an added benefit, he'll race as a coupled entry with stablemate Creator, who broke his maiden by 7 ¼ lengths on February 27th at Oaklawn.

I'd also like to briefly mention Cherry Wine, who has won two straight races in impressive fashion, including an 8.5-furlong allowance race at Gulfstream by six lengths.  He's kept good company and possesses a very strong late run, but he missed the Fountain of Youth Stakes due to illness and has yet to record a fast final time, so although he must be respected, I think he could be slightly vulnerable this Saturday.

So to recap, I'll take Madtap as my narrow choice to win, with utmost respect to Cupid, who should be very tough to beat if he gets a good trip. Of the Southwest runners, I narrowly prefer American Dubai over Whitmore and Suddenbreakingnews, and I think these five horses have a very strong chance to sweep the superfecta.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Rebel Stakes?


To help simplify the process of choosing and keeping track of everyone's prime horse selections in our 2016 Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge, I would like to ask everyone to please submit their prime choice each week by leaving a special comment on the official blog page for the contest. This will greatly reduce the chances of any prime horse selections getting overlooked, and will also make it simpler to double-check the standings. Thanks, and enjoy the racing!


J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website

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