The second division of the Grade 2, $750,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park features the return of 2-year-old champion Game Winner, not seen in more than four months since a fairly easy two and one-quarter length win in the Grade 1 Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Returning to the races in a two-turn race off a long layoff and in a graded stakes is no easy task. However, trainer Bob Baffert has a knack for having his horses ready even off long layoffs, such as when saddling Solomini for a second-place finish in the last year’s Rebel and when winning the 2017 San Felipe Stakes with Mastery.
Nine others are lined up to earn significant “Road to the Derby” points with their first- through fourth-place efforts, but very few have stakes credentials anywhere near those of Game Winner. Gunmetal Gray comes closest, having won the Grade 3 Sham Stakes in January before a runner-up effort behind Mucho Gusto in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes last month. Our Braintrust is another proven competitor in stakes. He finished second in the Jerome Stakes on New Year’s Day and followed that up with a neck defeat in a three-horse photo finish last month in the Grade 3 Withers Stakes. Of the horses moving into the big leagues for the first time, Omaha Beach may stand out off an easy nine-length win last month in California. Others who appear to be improving are Laughing Fox, a two-time winner at Oaklawn this year, and Jersey Agenda, who won easily at Oaklawn in January before setting the early pace and tiring badly in the Southwest Stakes last month. Market King, Kaziranga, Captain Von Trapp, and the maiden Parsimony complete the field.
I’m picking Omaha Beach to post the mild upset over likely heavy favorite Game Winner in this division of the Rebel Stakes. Omaha Beach has the benefit of two races in 2019, compared to zero for Game Winner, as well as an improving pattern of Equibase Speed Figures, the most recent 109 which is higher than any figure Game Winner earned in three of his four wins, with the exception a 111 earned in the American Pharoah Stakes last September. Having begun his career on turf with three in-the-money efforts, Omaha Beach took six weeks off then began his 3-year-old campaign on dirt, first missing by a half-length to highly regarded 3-year-old Nolo Contesto before the nine-length romp last month. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind this colt is bred to be something special, as his dam (Charming) is the dam of 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Take Charge Brandi, who won three more stakes races in a row after that upset win, all around two turns. Mike Smith will ride Omaha Beach for the first time. He is also scheduled to ride Extra Hope in the first division of the Rebel for Richard Mandella and there is potential for this Hall of Fame team to be in the limelight in both races with their talented charges.
Our Braintrust has never been worse than third in five races and continues to improve with each start. He earned a 99 figure when second in the Jerome Stakes on New Year’s Day then was privately purchased by Gary Barber and sent to trainer Mark Casse. In his first start for Casse and first start around two turns, Our Braintrust improved to a career-best 103 figure when coming up inches short of winning the Withers Stakes, ending up beaten a head and a neck on the wire in a big effort. With blinkers going on for the Rebel, Our Braintrust could be that much more focused on the task at hand and is another with more than average potential to post the win and upset Game Winner in the process.
Game Winner is not a horse to ignore as a contender to win the Rebel, but certainly as the likely prohibitive favorite from a betting perspective is a poor wager to win. Undefeated in four starts, Game Winner improved by leaps and bounds off his 94 figure debut last August, winning the Del Mar Futurity with a 100 figure in September before a dominant win in the American Pharoah Stakes with a 111 figure later that month. Although he only beat four other horses in the American Pharoah, Game Winner defeated 12 others easily in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile but did regress to a 100 figure. With some steady workouts in California for Baffert, who won this race six of seven times between 2010 and 2016, Game Winner could be totally ready to run two turns in top company and win this year’s Rebel.
The rest of the field, with their best representative Equibase Speed Figures, is Captain Von Trapp (93), Gunmetal Gray (104), Jersey Agenda (97), Kaziranga (88), Laughing Fox (98), Market King (91), and Parsimony (103).