Will Baffert Sweep Both Divisions of the Rebel?

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....

Division #1

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.

Division #2

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).

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 season.

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.

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