Less than 24 hours after one of the last holy grails in sports fell, Magnum Moon took on one of the longest-standing obstacles in Thoroughbred racing.
If this is the year a No. 16 seed can dethrone a top seed for the first time ever in the men’s NCAA Tournament — as UMBC did to University of Virginia on March 16 — the curse of Apollo which has reigned since 1882 may be just be ripe for the picking this season.
In the stretch of the $900,000, Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park on March 17, Magnum Moon presented himself as such a candidate when he drew off from Grade 1-placed Solomini to score a 3 1/2-length victory and remain unbeaten in three starts.
While the Bob Baffert-trained Justify has gotten buzz off his two career victories as one with the potential become the first horse who did not race as a 2-year-old to win the first leg of the Triple Crown since the aforementioned Apollo, Robert and Lawana Low’s Magnum Moon has gone one better by capturing a prep race and earning 50 qualifying points toward the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.
Since debuting at Gulfstream Park for Todd Pletcher on Jan. 13, the son of Malibu Moon earned his connections’ confidence with his quick progression in his first two outings — faith he solidified Saturday in his first try against stakes company.
“We were confident, but nervous,” Robert Low said. “He got the job done. Todd is very organized. We knew he had him ready for the race.”
Magnum Moon had already shown versatility in his first two starts, winning his maiden outing by 4 ½ lengths while racing on the front end, then proving he could rate when he wheeled back to take a Feb. 15 allowance test at Tampa Bay Downs.
Against a solid group of nine other challengers in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel Stakes, the 3-1 shot used a couple different tools en route to his emphatic win. With Title Ready hustling to the lead out of the inside post, Magnum Moon settled in the three path with Grade 1 winner Sporting Chance to his outside and Solomini to his inside as the opening quarter went in :23.42. As Title Ready left the half-mile in :47.15, Magnum Moon had advanced to third outside of Curlin’s Honor and was reeling in the pacesetter as they moved around the final turn.
“He was traveling pretty good,” said winning jockey Luis Saez, who gave up the mount on Sporting Chance to ride Magnum Moon in the Rebel. “He broke good and was in the right spot. When he came to the stretch, he just kept running and never stopped. He proved today that he can really run.”
Magnum Moon had officially taken command as they settled in for the stretch run, leaving even-money favorite Solomini and jockey Flavien Prat to fend off Combatant for place honors. The winner covered the distance in 1:42.68 on a track rated fast.
“We felt like we had a very talented colt,” Pletcher said. “[We were] very pleased with his first two races, but this was a step up in class and running against accomplished, seasoned colts. We were confident that he was training very well, coming into it in great shape, and just hoped he could handle the continued rise in class.”
Solomini, making his first start since crossing the finish line first but being disqualified to third in the Dec. 9 Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity, got going again late after falling back to fourth in the stretch.
“He had a good race ... we had a good trip,” Prat said. “We got on the inside and that’s not the best for him, but then I wasn’t going to keep him off. And he made a nice run ... he ran a good second.”
Combatant, second in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes on Feb. 19, got another on-the-board placing as Title Ready and Sporting Chance were fourth and fifth, respectively.
Magnum Moon was bred in Kentucky by Ramona S. Bass out of the unraced Unbridled’s Song mare Dazzling Song, and was a $380,000 purchase by his owners from Claiborne Farm’s consignment to the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale.
Pletcher indicated a return trip to Oaklawn for the April 14 Arkansas Derby is “likely and logical” for Magnum Moon. From there, the next target is expected to be a shot at history May 5.
“There’s nothing like seeing it actually happen,” Pletcher said. “You can always prepare for it and hope for it and all that. It’s still up to the horse to go there out and prove it. Very proud of him for doing it today.”