By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
A week later than originally expected, the Kentucky Derby
favorites Game Winner and Improbable will make their
much-anticipated three-year-old debuts in the two separate divisions of
Saturday's $750,000 Rebel Stakes (gr.
II) at Oaklawn Park.
Both colts are Grade 1 winners trained by Bob Baffert,
who has won the Rebel six times since 2010. They'll be heavily favored to give
Baffert his seventh and eighth wins in this rich Road to the Kentucky Derby
prep race, but could one or the other be vulnerable to an upset? Let's take a
look at the main contenders in each race....
In my opinion, this is the deeper of the two divisions,
but it's also the one where I'm more confident in the morning line favorite. #9 Improbable is 3-5 for a reason; the
son of City Zip went 3-for-3 last year with blowout wins in the Street Sense
Stakes and the Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I). In both races, he easily defeated
high-class competition by open lengths, demonstrating the ability to track the
pace and power home with authority. He also ran fast on the Beyer and BRIS
speed figure scales.
Improbable hasn't run in more than four months, but he's
been training up a storm at Santa Anita, throwing down eleven workouts since
January 9th. That includes a bullet five furlongs in :58 2/5 as
early as February 1, plus six furlongs in 1:12 on February 25 and a couple of :59-and-change
moves in March.
If Improbable has one shortcoming, it's that he's shown a
tendency to get aggressive and a bit rank early on in his races, but drawing
post position nine in the Rebel Stakes should afford him the option to stay in
the clear and settle into stride while tracking the speedy pair of #7 Classy John (a two-time stakes
winner sprinting six furlongs) and #8
Galilean. Granted, Improbable will be a very short price and not really
worth playing in the win pool, but if you're looking to play the all-stakes Pick
4, he looks like a very logical single and is my clear choice to win.
Speaking of Galilean, he's the most likely candidate to
produce an upset, considering that he's won the King Glorious Stakes and the
California Cup Derby against California-breds by a combined 13 ½ lengths in his
last two starts. Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, Galilean obviously has a lot of
talent, but the caliber of competition that he's been beating is questionable,
and I was a little disappointed by his victory in the California Cup Derby—he had
to work harder than I expected to win by 4 ½ lengths as the 1-20 favorite. For
what it's worth, he'll also be conceding three pounds to Improbable despite
being the less accomplished runner.
If you're looking for a longshot to play in the exotics,
I would suggest #4 Easy Shot. He was
no match for the talented Mucho Gusto in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. III)
last time out, but he didn't miss second place by much against the capable
graded stakes winner Gunmetal Gray. Previously, Easy Shot had finished fifth in
the Sham Stakes (gr. III), but I think that performance was much better than it
appears at first glance—he was easily on his way to a third-place finish (maybe
better) until he got shut off late in the homestretch, causing him to take up
and lose his momentum. He's arguably no more than the fourth-best California shipper
in this race, but that could still be sufficient to land him on the board with
the right trip.
I have had #5 Game
Winner listed at the top of my Kentucky Derby rankings since he won the Del
Mar Futurity (gr. I) back in September, and so far, this beautifully-bred son
of Candy Ride has lived up to expectations by recording two additional Grade 1
wins in the American Pharoah Stakes (gr. I) and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr.
I was particularly impressed by Game Winner's triumph in
the Juvenile, as he raced wide every step of the way, but gamely overcame his
tough trip to win going away by 2 ½ lengths over the Grade 1 winner Knicks Go.
Game Winner's efforts for the year were more than enough to secure him an Eclipse
Award as the champion two-year-old male of 2018.
But as much as I respect Game Winner's talent and
accomplishments, and as much as I believe he can achieve this year given his
ability and stamina-oriented pedigree, I wonder if he'll be vulnerable to an
upset on Saturday. Ever since Game Winner and Improbable made their mutual
returns to the work tab on January 9, Game Winner has seemed to be a little behind
schedule compared to his stablemate. He's posted just nine workouts this year
compared to Improbable's eleven, going roughly ten days between workouts early
on before accelerating his work schedule in February.
Also, Game Winner works have generally been longer and
slower than those posted by Improbable. That's not really surprising nor
concerning since Game Winner has never been as flashy as his stablemate, but it
also leaves me wondering whether Game Winner will be short of his absolute best
for the Rebel Stakes. His workmanlike, late-running style is less reminiscent
of Baffert's recent stars American Pharoah and Justify and instead similar to
that of Lookin at Lucky, Baffert's two-time champion who had to summon every
ounce of his ability to win the 2010 Rebel Stakes in his first start of the
If Game Winner does come up short, #6 Omaha Beach seems like clearly the most logical candidate to
take advantage. This son of War Front managed to lose his first four starts,
but the first three came on turf, and he lost the last three by the combined
margin of less than a length while knocking heads with the well-regarded Nolo
Contesto and the future stakes winners Flying Scotsman and Bob and Jackie.
After showing improvement in his dirt debut, Omaha Beach
stepped up significantly in a seven-furlong maiden special weight at Santa
Anita. After tracking a very quick pace over a sloppy, sealed track that was
playing fast, Omaha Beach powered clear with complete authority and drew off to
win by nine lengths.
Granted, that was a sprint, but Omaha Beach's four
previous runs had all come going a mile or farther, so I don't think there's
any reason to question his stamina. He appears to be rounding into form at the
right time, and his superior early speed should give him a tactical advantage
over Game Winner. All things being equal, I still think Game Winner is the
better horse (and a legitimate contender for the Kentucky Derby), but I'm not
sure all things will be equal this Saturday. Omaha Beach's recent races could
give him the advantage he needs if Game Winner is indeed a race or two away
from reaching his peak. I'm willing to take a shot with him on top since he
strikes me as the only horse with a serious chance to upset the favorite,
making him fair value at his 7-2 morning line odds.
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the two divisions
of 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.