Five things to know for the 2018 Rebel Stakes
A Kentucky Derby (G1) prep with a $900,000 purse and 50 points to the winner ought to attract a solid field, and Saturday’s Rebel (G2) at Oaklawn Park has indeed come up a dandy.
The 1 1/16-mile stepping stone to the April 14 Arkansas Derby (G1) has the obligatory Bob Baffert shipper with a robust resume, a high-class Wayne Lukas juvenile looking to regain his best form, an unbeaten stakes firster invading for Todd Pletcher, a trio from Steve Asmussen including one with particular upside, a $1.5 million juvenile purchase for Mark Casse…and that’s not even all of the contenders with talking points in their favor.
Here are my five things to know for the Rebel:
1. Baffert’s Solomini boasts the unique feat of beating both heavyweights Bolt d'Oro and McKinzie, on a Southern California circuit that’s shaped up as the strongest so far on the Derby trail. Although no match for Bolt d’Oro in his stakes and two-turn debut in the FrontRunner (G1), Solomini was eligible to improve for the experience, and so he did when edging Bolt d’Oro as the runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). Obviously the tables were turned on account of Bolt d’Oro’s wide trip, but Solomini still took a step forward. And the Zayat colorbearer did so again in the December 9 Los Alamitos Futurity (G1), where he was best on the day but controversially disqualified in favor of stablemate McKinzie. Solomini’s form has been boosted in the interim, most conspicuously in the Bolt d’Oro-McKinzie throwdown in last Saturday’s San Felipe (G2).
The Rebel marks his belated reappearance after fever ruled him out of the February 3 Robert B. Lewis (G3), but his string of long works, and recent bullets, indicate he’s primed for Baffert, who’s won six (!) Rebels – and all of them since 2010. Note also that less accomplished California shippers have won both of Oaklawn’s preps this season, ill-fated stablemate Mourinho in the Smarty Jones and Keith Desormeaux’s My Boy Jack in the Southwest (G3). If there is a reason to try to beat the 3-2 morning-line favorite, it’s his propensity to be more of a grinding type. On the other hand, as an April 29 foal by Curlin (the 2007 Rebel romper), Solomini is entitled to be better at three. And Baffert has commented that he has developed physically over the winter.
2. The Southwest left more questions than answers, and the Rebel can provide a resolution. With My Boy Jack darting up the fence, sluicing through the best part of the muddy track, the Presidents’ Day feature served up a more one-sided result than warranted. Of the three Southwest alumni coming back in the Rebel, the Lukas-trained Sporting Chance has the greatest chance to rebound from his third-place effort. The hero of last summer’s Hopeful (G1) had been sidelined since by knee surgery, so the Southwest was just a starting point off the five-month layoff. Sporting Chance was also hampered by the lugging-in Combatant, who brushed him, forcing him to steady and alter course. The knock on Sporting Chance is that the Hopeful form hasn’t helped up too well over time, but on the plus side, the son of Tiznow should have more to offer, and now he picks up Hall of Famer John Velazquez. And Lukas is one of the two trainers (along with Pletcher) who’ve managed to interrupt Baffert’s dominance in this race.
Asmussen’s Combatant has done well to rally for second in all three of his stakes appearances – the Springboard Mile, Smarty Jones, and Southwest – and he stands to get a beneficial pace set-up. Still, he must prove that he’s up to winning one of these. Stablemate Zing Zang likewise would appreciate the projected lively tempo. Yet he leaves himself too much to do, having to close from near the back of the pack for fourth in the Lecomte (G3) and fifth in the Southwest.
3. Last-out allowance winners Magnum Moon and Title Ready both look ready to step up versus graded stakes rivals. Pletcher’s Magnum Moon has attracted the more buzz of the pair, thanks to his perfect two-for-two record. The other high-profile Derby hopeful (aside from Justify) who hopes to defy the “Apollo curse” as an unraced juvenile, Magnum Moon was most authoritative in his Gulfstream Park unveiling. The Malibu Moon blueblood showed excellent tactical speed before powering clear in that six-furlong dash, and when stretching out in a Tampa allowance, he rated kindly and cruised under a hand ride.
In contrast, Title Ready has been under the radar after going 1-for-4 at two, his win coming at Keeneland. Yet the Asmussen pupil reached another level when adding blinkers, and trying two turns, in his Oaklawn reappearance. Displaying a forward attacking style, Title Ready dueled Lukas’ odds-on Transgress into submission and opened up. A Charles Fipke homebred by More Than Ready, he is a half-brother to Grade 3 vixen Seeking the Title (dam of current Clark H. [G1] hero Seeking the Soul). The grandson of unbeaten Hall of Famer Personal Ensign gets an eye-catching rider change to Jose Ortiz – a clue regarding high hopes?
4. Last-out allowance winners Curlin's Honor and Higher Power have upside with arguably more to prove. Curlin’s Honor, the pricey purchase alluded to above, is actually a Fasig-Tipton sale topper twice over. Leading the 2016 Kentucky July Sale at $475,000, the Curlin colt brought a Midlantic May record of $1.5 million as a two-year-old in training. Casse brought him along patiently, and he’s responded by winning both starts at six furlongs. After chasing the pace out wide and keeping on in his Keeneland premiere, Curlin’s Honor was more impressive when next sighted at Fair Grounds. He drafted behind the leaders, had the door slammed shut on him in the stretch, angled around, and still won going away. The neck margin was in no way indicative of his superiority. From the family of Ogygian, Honour and Glory, and further back Fappiano, Curlin’s Honor picks up Florent Geroux for his simultaneous stakes and two-turn test.
Pin Oak homebred Higher Power, a Medaglia d’Oro half-brother to millionaire Alternation, is two-for-two at a route. The Donnie Von Hemel trainee followed up his Remington maiden win with a commendable Oaklawn allowance score over Asmussen hotpot New York Central. While Higher Power had to overcome a spot of trouble, New York Central endured perhaps a worse trip hung out wide throughout. With a more sensible passage New York Central might well have justified 1-2 favoritism that day – and he came back to beat Transgress. We’d have a better gauge of Higher Power if he hadn’t gotten sick briefly and missed the Southwest.
5. High North seeks to add to the growing tally of stakes winners from the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2). Churchill Downs’ Thanksgiving weekend juvenile contest has turned out to be prolific of late. Not only have the principals subsequently captured recent preps – like the victorious Enticed taking the Gotham (G3) and third-placer Promises Fulfilled upstaging the Fountain of Youth (G2) – but even the unplaced KJC runners have scooped up prizes on the trail. Bravazo scored in the Risen Star (G2), Reride made it a stakes double in the Mine That Bird Derby, and Quip just surprised the Tampa Bay Derby (G2). That all bodes well for High North, since he ran a bang-up fourth in the KJC despite considerable trouble. If underachieving in his Risen Star comeback, the Brad Cox trainee ran an even fifth as though needing that race off the bench. Now he’s eligible to resume his progress with a new rider in Hall of Famer Gary Stevens. He’s also got Oaklawn history going for him – he sports the colors of Shortleaf Stable, the current nom de course of John Ed Anthony, who won a handful of Rebels under the Loblolly name.
Also check out the special "exacta double" offer involving the Rebel and the Jeff Ruby Steaks!
Solomini photo courtesy of Coady Photography