Five Questions to be Answered in the 2019 Rebel Stakes

Top-class racing during Oaklawn Park's spring 2019 meet. (Coady Photography)

The 1 1/16-mile Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park is split into two divisions this year, each worth $750,000. The Rebel divisions are scheduled as Race 8 and Race 10 on Saturday. After the cancellation of the San Felipe Stakes scheduled for March 9, many runners originally pointing to that race have been rerouted to Oaklawn for the Rebel. As it turns out, we’ll have to wait to see a matchup between the top two horses from Bob Baffert’s barn in Game Winner and Improbable, as the two will put their undefeated records on the line in separate divisions of the Rebel this Saturday.

In a “rebellious” move, I went rogue this week by making up my own set of five questions, trying to squeeze as much information as possible about a pair of contests that feature 19 total horses. Next week, questions will be fielded from Twitter for the March 23 Louisiana Derby; as always those questions are welcome and can be submitted through reaching out on Twitter using @EmilyOptixEQ.

1. With the Rebel Stakes split this year, is one division of the race stronger than the other? 

This is a good question to start off with. Horseplayers have the task of not only handicapping these races, but also looking ahead toward the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. While both races came up competitive, at this point there looks to be more depth in the first division, race 8. There are more horses in that race with stakes experience and proven ability at the stakes level. Classy John and Galilean, both state-bred stakes winners, will be making their respective graded stakes debuts. Both Long Range Toddy and Extra Hope have been competitive in their prior graded stakes efforts, picking up minor awards, but each horse is seeking his first graded stakes win. In the second division, race 10, the majority of the field will be taking on graded stakes company for the first time. Grade 3 winner Gunmetal Gray and Grade 3-placed Our Braintrust bring some class to this event. Jersey Agenda made his graded stakes debut last month in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn and will try to rebound from an off-the-board finish. 

2. Will the California horses sweep both divisions of the Rebel Stakes?

Historically, California horses, and shippers in general, have performed well in the Rebel Stakes. Since 2010, Bob Baffert has won six of nine editions of the Rebel. Given that recent history and the solid contingent coming in this year, horses from the Golden State hold a strong hand in each division. Baffert brings in the two morning-line favorites, Game Winner and Improbable. Based on their individual racing careers, they deserve respect in their respective races. There are some other good racehorses coming in from California, too. Jerry Hollendorfer will enter a pair. His Gunmetal Gray has graded stakes foundation but lacks the speed figures of stablemate Galilean, who is getting a class test. Richard Mandella also brings in a pair of horses: stakes-placed Extra Hope and Omaha Beach, a progressive type taking on winners for the first time who has yet to finish out of the trifecta. A couple of outsiders will join this group shipping in from California: Parsimony, a maiden for Doug O’Neill; and Easy Shot, trained by Keith Desormeaux. There are some legit local challengers, but if I were offering odds on the place of origin for both winners of the Rebel Stakes, California would be a very heavy favorite. 

Game Winner (Eclipse Sportswire)

3. What are the strengths and weaknesses of second division favorite Game Winner?

The more I discuss my handicapping style in these articles, you’ll notice that much of my analysis begins by assessing the favorite, so will take that approach with champion Game Winner. As discussed earlier, I think he does catch the softer of the two divisions and one that flatters his running style. He has shown a tactical running style and is capable of making a mid-race move with enough class and closing speed when needed for a strong finish. Given the complexion of the race, his type of running style and projected trip certainly work in his favor. Game Winner comes into this race as the “class of the field” as a multiple graded stakes winner, including the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in his most recent start back in November. His speed figures, all earned as a juvenile, are solid and are on the higher end in this field. One of the biggest concerns with a horse like this is if he will return the same as he left last fall, now that he begins his 3-year-old career. This is a very valid question and requires some digging into his past races. Bob Baffert’s success last summer, especially with 2-year-old debut runners, did not go unnoticed, and Game Winner was one of those precocious horses. He won his very first start, and was able to back that debut effort up less than three-weeks later when he won the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity. Only slightly freshened off that pair of races, he made his route debut in the Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes and enjoyed a perfect trip to post an open-length win against a small field. He carried that winning streak to Churchill Downs for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and after racing a wide trip that was less than ideal, he used his class to post his fourth straight win and secure the Eclipse Award as champion juvenile male. Overall, there are some questions about the quality of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile field, especially since second-place finisher Knicks Go has disappointed in his two stakes races this year. Based on analyzing the trips and visuals for Game Winner since his debut, there are still some outstanding questions about him, and I want to see him tested. This division of the Rebel did not come up “soft” – however, he is logical in here based on his previous body of work. A win Saturday might not be the worst outcome for him, especially to those playing the long game (more on that below). 

Improbable (Coady Photography)

4. What are the strengths and weaknesses of first division favorite Improbable?

Just like stablemate Game Winner, this colt also brings an undefeated racing record for Bob Baffert to the Rebel Stakes. He’s shown a level of class that’s steadily progressed with each start, culminating with his win in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity last December. Each of his three wins has come on a different racetrack, and even though not all racetracks are equal, his proven ability to handle travel does inspire confidence for Saturday’s race. He also has a favorable running style for the first Rebel division, as he’s similar to Game Winner with proven tactical speed and a push-button acceleration. Based on speed figures, he fits strongly with his opponents; however, I will be looking to see some improvement in his figures coming out of Saturday’s race. Since current form is a question mark for both of these Baffert trainees as they return off of long layoffs for their 3-year-old debuts, a lot of attention should be paid to workouts.  Game Winner’s works appear to be pretty typical of what he showed last year, and Improbable worked well solo in his most recent training at Los Alamitos. Improbable did seem to run off after the workout, something that generally I am not a fan of.

5. Who is the pick to win the Rebel Stakes? 

The first division is not the most exciting betting race with the logical short-priced pair of Improbable and Galilean in the field. Reviewing last month’s Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn, the third-place finish by Long Range Toddy could be considered slightly “better than looked” as he ran a solid race. Extra Hope is a nice horse and totally capable in this spot. He will pick up jockey Mike Smith as Flavien Prat sticks with Galilean. The experienced hands of Smith could come in handy for Extra Hope, as getting a good early trip will be crucial for him to have a shot to win in the stretch. 

In the second division, Game Winner is a logical win candidate, and from a horseplayer’s perspective there are other benefits down the road to him winning this – such as betting against him when he’ll be even shorter odds than on Saturday. I have been impressed with Laughing Fox, especially in his last two races. He seems to have put it together lately and has some “grit” that tells me that if he is in the mix late, he’ll fight to the finish line. Gunmetal Gray has been consistent, but needs to improve his speed figures, while Our Braintrust has some distance questions. Both of these horses are capable of capable getting a share, however. Omaha Beach is another one to consider, and even though he is facing winners for the first time, he is battle-tested as he’s raced against some subsequent stakes winners in his previous races. 

One more final question: What is the best song with the word “Rebel” in the title?

Easy. “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill. Good luck this weekend in both divisions of the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes!

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