Run at 1 1/16 miles, the $900,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park is the final stepping-stone to the April 15 Arkansas Derby. The race awards qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands to the first four finishers on a scale of 50-20-10-5.
Trainer Bob Baffert, who saddles American Anthem this year, has won six of the last seven editions of the Rebel: Cupid in 2016; American Pharoah in 2015; Hoppertunity in 2014; Secret Circle in 2012; The Factor in 2011; and Lookin at Lucky in 2010. Fellow Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, who saddles longshot Silver Bullion in this year’s Rebel, took the other renewal during this time span with Will Take Charge in 2013.
Three horses have bagged the Rebel/Kentucky Derby double – Sunny’s Halo in 1983, Smarty Jones in 2004, and American Pharoah in 2015.
Besides the Baffert contingent, other recent racing superstars to win the Rebel include Curlin (2007) and Lawyer Ron (2006).
Race winner One Liner is not present, but Petrov (second), Lookin At Lee (third), Silver Dust (fourth) and Uncontested (sixth as the favorite) exit the locally run Feb. 20 Southwest Stakes.
Four of last 11 Rebel winners ran in the Southwest in their race prior, but the rest have exited various other events.
Here are five questions that must be answered about the race.
1. Will Bob Baffert continue his Rebel dominance?
As noted earlier, Baffert has won six of the last seven editions of this race, which is nearly unconscionable. This year’s stable representative American Anthem has only run twice, breaking his maiden at first asking in advance of a narrow loss at the hooves of Sham Stakes winner Gormley. With that rival returning to finish a well-beaten fourth in the San Felipe Stakes last week, American Anthem may have lost a bit of his luster.
The Baffert barn suffered a major Triple Crown blow last Saturday when romping San Felipe winner Mastery suffered a left front leg fracture during the gallop out. If he returns to the races at all, it won’t be for several months.
Baffert needs the lightly-raced American Anthem to step up this weekend. At this time, his only other viable Kentucky Derby candidate appears to be Reach the World, who was recently second behind Battle of Midway in a salty Santa Anita Park allowance. Both of those runners are expected to step up to the April 8 Santa Anita Derby, but Baffert mentioned to me in a recent conversation that the grinding Reach the World may be best suited to the Belmont Stakes.
Joe’s answer: Gormley’s poor performance last weekend lifts a cloud over American Anthem’s head, and the lightly-raced colt will face lots of other speed in the Rebel. Given the question marks, the risk (post-time odds) will likely not be worth the potential reward (price).
2. How good are the Oaklawn-based horses?
Off his romping win in the locally run Smarty Jones Stakes, Uncontested was bet down to 11-10 odds in the Southwest. After battling a fast pace, he faded to sixth, beaten more than a dozen lengths. He gets another try in the Rebel, but he’s drawn post two with a bevy of other speed types expected to pressure from his outside. He’s a nice horse, but moving forward I truly believe his best work will come around one turn.
Second in both the Smarty Jones and the Southwest, Petrov may be the Oaklawn horse you want moving forward. He has natural speed, but is rateable, and chances are he’ll try to attack from a little further off the pace in the Rebel.
Off slowly in the Southwest, Lookin At Lee did make a solid late run to edge fellow Rebel runner Silver Dust for the show dough. Both stretch kickers will have plenty of pace to chase on Saturday, and they should be given serious consideration in the gimmicks.
Joe’s answer: Although they could factor prominently on Saturday, I don’t believe any of the Southwest alumni will be major players Kentucky Derby week, unless of course they re-route to the William Walker Stakes or Pat Day Mile.
3. Can Todd Pletcher sweep the graded Oaklawn Kentucky Derby preps?
Can’t prep the broom without winning the Southwest first, which Pletcher did with One Liner, who will most likely be rerouted to the Wood Memorial on April 8.
Prior to his Southwest score, One Liner had yet to run around two turns, as is the case with Pletcher’s Rebel rep Malagacy. By Shackleford out of the unraced Dehere mare Classiest Gem, Malagacy’s pedigree tilts towards sprinting, but then again so does One Liner’s.
Following his debut maiden win at Gulfstream Park, Pletcher stated that Malagacy would likely stick to one turn races, but the recent Florida allowance romp must have changed his mind. He’s naturally fast, but is also rateable. He did everything right last time out and now must prove that he can run the same race around an added bend.
Joe’s answer: Yes, he can. One Liner won the Southwest and Malagacy can win the Rebel. I’m not sure who Pletcher will run in the Arkansas Derby, but whomever it is will be a major player. Much like Baffert, Pletcher seems to have a very good feel for Oaklawn.
4. Can Royal Mo lift John Shirreffs back to the Kentucky Derby?
Shirreffs won the Kentucky Derby with his first-ever starter in the longshot Giacomo in 2005 and ran horses in the race the next two years (A.P. Warrior finished 18th in 2006 and Tiago seventh in 2007), but he hasn’t been back since.
His Gormley finished a surprisingly non-competitive fourth in last Saturday’s San Felipe, and he certainly didn’t look like a Triple Crown-type horse. Now Royal Mo must take the baton from his fading stablemate and run with it.
As a 2-year-old, Royal Mo took three starts to break his maiden, but he took a huge step forward in his first run this year, wiring the Robert B. Lewis Stakes in visually impressive fashion. According to his jockey Victor Espinoza, Royal Mo is not much of a work horse, but his afternoon competitiveness is perhaps his greatest asset.
Joe's answer: Royal Mo drew post 10 of 11. He will need to avoid being hung out to dry on the first turn. Like many of his Rebel rivals, he’s a rateable horse blessed with natural early speed. Even before last weekend’s disappointment, I was fairly confident he had more upside than stablemate Gormley. Now is his chance to prove it and I think he will.
5. Who wins the Rebel and why?
Joe’s answer: More than half of the Rebel field likes to run on, or near, the lead. With lesson-learning change of tactics likely to be employed by a few of those, this will certainly be a rider’s race.
Does Todd Pletcher’s rerouting of Southwest winner One Liner to the likely softer Wood at Aqueduct mean that he likes Malagacy better?
Sure, this will be Malagacy’s first route test, but all of Pletcher’s runners are very well schooled at Palm Beach Downs. He knows exactly what he has.
With honest fractions assured, Risen Star Stakes runner-up Untrapped should sit an advantageous, stalking trip, and I think he’s legit.
Joe's Rebel picks: 1. Malagacy 2. Untrapped 3. Royal Mo 4. Petrov