By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
The Road to the Kentucky Derby continues this Saturday
with two more major prep races, including the $900,000 Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at
Oaklawn Park. Eleven horses have been entered in the 8.5-furlong race, which
has been won in recent years by the champions and/or Breeders' Cup winners
American Pharoah, Lookin at Lucky, Will Take Charge, and Secret Circle.
The clear 3-2 favorite on the morning line is Solomini, who has already competed in
three Grade 1 races. Trained by Bob Baffert, who has won the Rebel Stakes six
times in the last eight years, Solomini has already faced (and beaten) such
prominent Kentucky Derby contenders as Bolt d'Oro, McKinzie, and Instilled
Regard while running second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) and FrontRunner
Stakes (gr. I) and first in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity (gr. I), though
he was disqualified to third in the latter race.
Speed? He's got plenty. Versatility? He can be effective
racing near the lead or coming from off the pace. No horse in the Rebel field
can boast form lines as impressive as those owned by Solomini, who has to be
viewed as the horse to beat.
But despite Solomini's obvious talent, 3-2 is a pretty
short price for a horse shipping to a new track and facing a deep field off a
layoff. I'm also a little concerned by the fact that Solomini can be a bit
awkward with his lead changes and has a habit of drifting in at the end of his
races, a tendency that led to his disqualification in the Los Alamitos
Since Solomini will be a heavy favorite, I'll take a
somewhat contrary approach and try to beat him with Magnum Moon. The well-bred son of Malibu Moon opened his career
with a decisive 4 ½-length maiden win at Gulfstream in January, earning a 95
Beyer speed figure while defeating three next-out winners, including future
Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) fourth-place finisher Machismo.
A month later, Magnum Moon shipped to Tampa Bay Downs and
impressed me again with a sharp allowance victory going a mile and forty yards.
Sent off as the 1-10 favorite, Magnum Moon was given some experience racing off
the pace and behind horses and adapted well to the change in running style, unleashing
a powerful finish in the homestretch to win easily by two lengths.
The Beyer for that effort was only an 88, but considering
that Magnum Moon was given a conservative ride and was hardly asked to run at
all, that's understandable. I think we've only seen the tip of the iceberg in
regard to what Magnum Moon can accomplish, and I'm expecting the Todd
Pletcher-trained colt to deliver a very big run in the Rebel. Whether the pace
is fast or slow, Magnum Moon should be able to adapt and work out an ideal trip
to post a mild upset. He's my pick to win.
For the exotics, I think Combatant is a major player. Although he's reached the winner's
circle just once in five starts, Combatant enters the Rebel off three
consecutive runner-up efforts in stakes races, including the Smarty Jones
Stakes and the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) at Oaklawn Park. In both of those
races, Combatant received less-than-perfect trips--in the Smarty Jones, he was
trying to rally from off the pace in a slow-paced event (RacingFlow.com gave
the race a Closer Favorability Ratio of 7, indicating a speed-favoring event),
while in the Southwest he was forced to rally very wide while the winner, My
Boy Jack, rallied up the rail on a day when the inside seemed like the best
part of the track.
Speed figures aren't everything, but it's worth noting
that Combatant's career-best Beyer (a 94 from the Smarty Jones) is higher than
any figure earned by Solomini thus far. While I'm not sure how far Combatant
ultimately wants to run (he might find a mile to be his best distance), he shouldn't
have any trouble negotiating the distance of the Rebel and I'd be somewhat
surprised if he manages to finish out of the exotics.
One longer shot that I like is Curlin's Honor, who has won his first two starts in narrow fashion.
Trained by Mark Casse, Curlin's Honor opened his career last October with a
hard-fought maiden win sprinting seven furlongs at Keeneland, a race in which
he raced wide throughout but battled gamely to prevail by a neck. He was away
from the races for a while after that, but returned on February 25th
to win a six-furlong allowance optional claiming race at Fair Grounds despite running
into significant traffic in the homestretch.
Curlin's Honor will be stretching out in distance and
stepping up sharply in class for the Rebel, but his pedigree suggests that 8.5
furlongs won't be an issue and the way he has overcome tough trips in both of
his starts hints that he might be something special. I think he's got a shot to
get on the board at a nice price.
Chance stamped his Derby credentials by winning the Hopeful
Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga, but was sidelined by injury shortly thereafter and
did not run again until the Southwest Stakes, in which he finished third despite
racing close to a quick pace in his first start around two turns. He could
certainly move forward in his second start of the year, particularly if he
catches a better pace setup this time around.
Ready and Higher Power have
both scored allowance victories during the current Oaklawn meet, but while
Title Ready's effort received higher Beyer and BRIS speed figures, you can
argue that Higher Power's victory was more impressive since he received a very
uncomfortable trip steadying off heels around the first turn and racing in
between horses throughout the race. When he finally got clear coming off the
final turn, he finished nicely through the homestretch to rally and beat the
next-out winner New York Central. Obviously we can't play every horse and
expect to make a meaningful profit, but I'm curious to see if Higher Power can
step up his game with a better trip.
North figures to attract some attention since he rallied to
finish fourth in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) last fall, a race
that featured the future stakes winners Enticed, Promises Fulfilled, Reride,
Quip, Bravazo, and Diamond King. But it's worth noting that the early pace of
the Kentucky Jockey Club seemed a bit destructive and favorable to horses
rallying from far back, including High North; the majority of horses that have
run well out of the Kentucky Jockey Club did so after racing close to the pace,
while late runners from the Kentucky Jockey Club such as Tiz Mischief and Lone
Sailor have disappointed in subsequent starts. High North himself came back to
finish fifth in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) at Fair Grounds last time out,
and while you can argue that he was compromised a bit by the fast finishing
fractions in that race, he could encounter another less-than-favorable setup in
the Rebel and might find the waters a bit deep on Saturday.
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Rebel Stakes?
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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.