There may be some question about the status of the Kentucky Derby Presented Woodford Reserve as well as every other major sporting event with the world in the grips of an infectious disease pandemic, but there's no doubt about who has a handful of aces for the opening leg of the Triple Crown.
That person, of course, is trainer Bob Baffert, the sport's all-time leader in Triple Crown wins and five-time winner of the Kentucky Derby.
A week after Authentic punched his ticket to the Run for the Roses by winning the San Felipe Stakes for Baffert, the Hall of Famer sent out Nadal and gave him a doubles partner.
Undefeated and a 9-10 favorite, the speedy Nadal weathered his first test around two turns and a stretch bid from 82.60-1 longshot Excession to take the $1 million, Grade 2 Rebel Stakes for 3-year-olds over a sloppy racetrack March 14 at Oaklawn Park and net enough qualifying points for the May 2 opening leg of the Triple Crown at Churchill Downs.
"He showed some guts," said Baffert after winning the Rebel for the seventh time, one of them with 2015 Triple Crown champion American Pharaoh. "The really good horses can do what Nadal did. He went toe-to-toe with some good horses early and held on late. He gutted it out."
The son of Blame, who is now three-for-three in a career that started Jan. 19, is owned by George Bolton, Arthur Hoyeau, Barry Lipman and Mark Mathiesen.
"I have a great group of owners who have given me some really good horses," Baffert said.
For Baffert, his Triple Crown hand grew even more formidable about 20 minutes later when the undefeated Charlatan registered an impressive allowance win at Santa Anita Park. Yet uncertainty about whether the Kentucky Derby will be contested in its scheduled May 2 spot clouded some of his joy from both wins – especially with the Saturday races in Arkansas and California contested with no fans on hand due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"That was quite a 20-30 minutes," Baffert said by phone from California. "But it's hard to excited if the Kentucky Derby is not run in May. It won't be as majestic and won't be the same event. They have to run it in May for the good of the sport. There's enough time to figure out ways to run it safely and not impact the wagering."
The win in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel gave Nadal 50 qualifying points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby point series, a figure that has always been enough to earn a spot in the starting gate, and illustrated what will propel him to the Bluegrass State.
While tennis legend Rafael Nadal's trademark is power, the equine Nadal relies on speed, speed and more speed.
After winning the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes in 1:22.59 in his second start, Nadal rushed out to the lead from the rail under jockey Joel Rosario and reeled off a :22.89 opening quarter-mile with American Theorem and No Parole pressing him.
No Parole (finished eighth) said "no mas" after a half-mile in :46, and Nadal put away American Theorem (seventh) approaching the quarter pole. From there, the only threat in the stretch came from Calumet Farm's Excession, who rallied along the rail from last in the field of eight and then tipped outside of Nadal in midstretch with dead aim on the odds-on favorite.
Yet in the final yards, Nadal dug down like a Wimbledon champ and would not let Excession go by, winning by three-quarters-of-a-length while crossing the wire in 1:44.97.
"The best part," Baffert said, "is that (assistant trainer Jim Barnes) said Nadal wasn't blowing much after the race. He really handled everything great."
Excession, a son of Union Rags trained by four-time Rebel winner Steve Asmussen, picked up 20 qualifying points after finishing no better than seventh in his first two starts in Kentucky Derby preps, the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford and the Grade 1 Lecomte Stakes.
The Rebel kicked off the 3-year-old campaign of Basin, a Liam's Map colt who finished third, seven lengths behind Excession, in his first start since taking the Sept. 2 Grade 1 Runhappy Hopeful Stakes for Asmussen. He pocketed his first 10 qualifying points for finishing a head in front of Three Technique, who was fourth for the August Dawn Farm of two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Parcells and trainer Jeremiah Englehart.
A son of Mr Speaker, Three Technique added five Derby points and now has nine.
Nadal is likely to continue on Oaklawn's path to the Kentucky Derby which will conclude April 11 with the $1 million Arkansas Derby, a race that awards 100 qualifying points to the victor.