Handicapping a Deep Field in the Rebel Stakes

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

Good luck separating the contenders in the $900,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park! The 8.5-furlong race is the penultimate leg of Oaklawn's Kentucky Derby prep race series, and with such a large purse, the Rebel has drawn a field of eleven horses that look very competitive on paper.

The horse to beat is surely American Anthem, who ships in from California for trainer Bob Baffert, who has won six of the last seven renewals of the Rebel. After winning his debut at Del Mar with a late rally in the homestretch, getting up to win by a neck while sprinting six furlongs, American Anthem stretched out to a mile and set the pace in the Sham Stakes (gr. III), which he lost by a head to Gormley after a long battle.

American Anthem has trained sharply since that race, posting three straight bullet workouts at Santa Anita, and he gets into the Rebel Stakes with a light weight assignment of just 115 pounds. By drawing outside some of the key front-runners, jockey Mike Smith should be able to utilize American Anthem's blend of speed and ability to rate in the best way possible, staying forwardly placed if the pace is modest and settling a few lengths back if the pace is hot.

Suffice to say, American Anthem should be very competitive and warrants inclusion on all tickets, although his odds are unlikely to be appealing. Also, in terms of Beyer speed figures, American Anthem doesn't have an edge over his main rivals, which means there might be value to be found on some of the other contenders.

Royal Mo is another California shipper that is bound to draw wagering support. Trained by John Shirreffs, Royal Mo finished second in his first two starts before breaking through with a maiden win going a mile at Del Mar. About two months later, he won the February 4th Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. III) by 3 ½ lengths, although he did get a great trip setting a slow pace while facing just four rivals. In a race filled with speed, Royal Mo could be in for a wide trip from post position ten, and as a graded stakes winner, he'll be carrying 122 pounds-seven more than American Anthem. As a result, I believe Royal Mo could be vulnerable on Saturday.

The same goes for Untrapped, runner-up in both the LeComte Stakes (gr. III) and the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) at Fair Grounds. Both were solid efforts, but he benefited from quick fractions each time while generally receiving nice trips. He figures to give a good account of himself again, but I'm not sure he can take a big enough step forward to compete for the win in this deep field.

Malagacy is yet another well-regarded shipper, invading from Florida for trainer Todd Pletcher. Malagacy has been breathtaking in his two starts to date, winning his debut by 15 lengths and an allowance race by seven lengths, but those races were held at distances of 5 ½ and 6 ½ furlongs-the Rebel Stakes will mark his two-turn debut. While Malagacy certainly has the talent and speed to be a contender, Pletcher has indicated in the past that he believes Malagacy might be at his best as a sprinter. In a race filled with front-runners and speed horses, this could be a tough spot for Malagacy to stretch out in distance, so I'm leaning against him in the Rebel.

The local runners are led by Petrov, who has run well in Oaklawn's two previous Kentucky Derby prep races, finishing second in both the Smarty Jones Stakes and Southwest Stakes (gr. III). His performance in the latter race was particularly notable, as he tracked a quick pace before finishing second behind One Liner, who is skipping the Rebel Stakes. Although Petrov was beaten 3 ½ lengths by One Liner, he finished more than eight lengths clear of the third-place finisher and received a 96 Beyer speed figure, tied for the best figure earned by any horse in the Rebel field. What I really like about Petrov is that he has the tactical speed to stay close to a fast pace, but doesn't have to have the lead-in fact, he broke his maiden by settling eight lengths behind a runaway front-runner and closing strongly in the homestretch.

Like American Anthem, Petrov gets into the Rebel Stakes carrying just 115 pounds, and with a solid draw in post position four, he looms as perhaps the biggest threat to American Anthem.

But all of that said, I'm a little more intrigued by Uncontested, who defeated Petrov in the Smarty Jones Stakes before finishing sixth in the Southwest Stakes, beaten 12 ¾ lengths. On paper, that doesn't look like a very good effort, but I was intrigued by what I saw from Uncontested that day. After setting fast fractions of :22.93, :46.55, and 1:10.98, Uncontested seemed to be full of run rounding the far turn and appeared poised  to dominate the race in much the same way that he did in the Smarty Jones. But when Petrov challenged turning for home, Uncontested gave way without a fight-he simply faded down the homestretch while keeping his ears pricked, a sign that he wasn't giving his best.

It turns out that a breathing issue may have caused his sudden reversal of form, but a couple of equipment changes-including the addition of a tongue tie-should prevent the issue from occurring again. On March 10th, Uncontested gave the equipment changes a try in a five-furlong workout and proceeded to rocket through five furlongs in :58 4/5, a bullet workout that was substantially sharper than Uncontested's pre-Southwest workout, when he went four furlongs in a slow :51 flat.

All signs suggest that Uncontested could be poised to rebound in a huge way this Saturday, and after drawing post position two, he seems almost certain to secure the early lead and the rail, setting him up to play "catch me if you can." With 122 pounds on his back, holding off late runs from American Anthem and Petrov could be a challenge, but his poor showing in the Southwest could potentially make him an overlay in the wagering. If you want to add some value to your tickets, Uncontested might be the horse to include.

Lookin At Lee and Silver Dust, who finished third and fourth in the Southwest, are closers that will try to make an impact from off the pace. Of the pair, I slightly prefer Lookin At Lee, who was coming off a 3 ½-month layoff in the Southwest and dropped far back early on before rallying with interest in the homestretch. With that race under his belt, he should be able to take a step forward and maintain his advantage over Silver Dust, although the latter's superior positional speed could give him an advantage if the pace is slower than expected.

So who do I like best in the Rebel Stakes? Since this is such a competitive race, allow me to hedge a little bit. I view this race as a match between American Anthem and Petrov, somewhat reminiscent of the close battle between Cupid (a Baffert shipper) and Whitmore (an Oaklawn local trained by Ron Moquett) in the 2016 Rebel Stakes. But Uncontested is a wild card with the talent to pull off an upset if he returns to his best form, and I personally like the sound of boxing American Anthem, Petrov, and Uncontested in the exacta and/or trifecta, playing a few extra tickets with American Anthem on top since he figures to be the favorite. If I had to choose one to play on top, I would play it safe with American Anthem, unless the odds difference between American Anthem and Uncontested is too wide to ignore.

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


The Unlocking Winners Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge is back for a third consecutive year! Please be sure to post all entries, prime horses, and stable additions on the official contest page. 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 www.theturfboard.com.

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