Five things to know about the Rebel
Saturday’s $900,000 Rebel S. (G2) at Oaklawn Park, the final stepping stone to the April 15 Arkansas Derby (G1), is brimming with storylines that crisscross the country. And with 50 Kentucky Derby (G1) points to the winner, the 1 1/16-mile affair is virtually a ticket to Churchill Downs.
Here are my five things to know about the Rebel:
1. American Anthem is favored to maintain Hall of Famer Bob Baffert’s stranglehold on this race. Baffert is the Rebel’s all-time leading trainer, responsible for six of the last seven winners. He’s also won the past three straight, including with eventual Triple Crown champion American Pharoah (2015).
From the first crop of Bodemeister, Baffert’s 2012 Arkansas Derby romper and Kentucky Derby runner-up, American Anthem brings a little less racing experience than the trainer’s previous Rebel winners. This marks only his third lifetime start, following a sprint maiden win at Del Mar in December and a terrific near-miss in the January 7 Sham (G3) in his stakes and two-turn debut. The Sham was a trial by fire for a second start. After setting the pace on the rail under relentless pressure from Gormley, he was just outdueled by his savvier rival in the slop.
With no shortage of speed on tap at Oaklawn, and with American Anthem being better drawn in post 7, he projects a much more favorable stalking trip. He broke his maiden by rallying from just off the pace, and that’s the likely scenario here – unless the May 15 foal is still finding all of this coming at him a bit too fast.
2. Fellow California shipper Royal Mo is highly regarded by John Shirreffs, but circumstances may conspire to make this a tough task. The Uncle Mo colt has wired his last two – a Del Mar maiden and a weak renewal of the Robert B. Lewis (G3) at Santa Anita – and will probably have to adapt his style on Saturday. Parked out in post 10 of 11, Royal Mo would have to gun it hard to clear some pretty serious speed to his inside. Jockey Victor Espinoza figures to slot over into a tracking spot, but the danger remains that he’ll lose too much ground going into the clubhouse turn.
On the plus side, Royal Mo doesn’t appear one-dimensional. In his second start, he fluffed the break, found himself last early, and closed for second. If he can prove effective from off the pace, Espinoza has a better chance of mitigating the post concerns.
One thing that can’t be helped, unfortunately, is Royal Mo’s 122-pound weight assignment. As the co-highweight, he’s spotting seven pounds to most of the field, including American Anthem. Unless he’s that much better than the rest, it’s difficult to overcome, especially for a still-developing type who’s likely to peak later.
3. Todd Pletcher’s Malagacy hopes to follow in the hoofsteps of stablemate One Liner, but the question is whether he’s a different type. One Liner was unbeaten in two sprint starts before shipping in to plunder the Southwest (G3) in his two-turn debut. Malagacy brings a similar resume, only a lot flashier in terms of his margins and BRIS Speed ratings. In his unveiling in the Gulfstream slop on January 4, the son of Shackleford ran off by 15 lengths and notched a 104 Speed rating. Malagacy repeated the feat over 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast strip February 12, romping by seven lengths and earning a 103 Speed figure.
While it’s hazardous (especially for an amateur) to judge horseflesh via video from afar, Malagacy’s body type looks for all the world like a sprinter to me. I’m not sure how far One Liner ultimately wants to go either, but he’s not displayed the warp early speed that Malagacy has. In contrast, One Liner had to be niggled along in both his Gulfstream sprint allowance win and in the Southwest.
Of course, you can still win the Rebel and turn out to be a sprinter in the end. Just ask The Factor (2011) and Secret Circle (2012). Nevertheless, I’m inclined to watch how Malagacy copes with the distance and class test.
4. Uncontested is the highest-profile runner trying to improve from his Southwest loss. The speedball aired in the sloppy Smarty Jones, only to come undone on a fast track in the Southwest and fade to sixth as the even-money favorite. Trainer Wayne Catalano surmises that Uncontested displaced his palate that day, and prescribes a tongue tie this time. If that helps keep his airways open, he could hang around a lot longer. But he’d also tired to fourth in last fall’s Kentucky Jockey Club (G2), and it’s quite possible that the slop carried him in the Smarty Jones. Also, like Royal Mo, Uncontested is lugging 122 pounds and trying to concede weight all around. We’ll learn more about him here.
The others looking to do better are Petrov, second in both the Smarty Jones and Southwest; deep closer Lookin at Lee, off to a bobbling start in the Southwest before a belated third; and Silver Dust, a better-than-appears fourth in his Southwest stakes debut. A $510,000 son of Tapit, Silver Dust has some upside for Randy Morse.
5. Untrapped can flatter Risen Star (G2) winner Girvin with a big effort at Oaklawn. Arguably the better of Steve Asmussen’s pair (the other being Lookin at Lee), Untrapped has turned in two solid placings in Derby points races at Fair Grounds. He was a green-looking runner-up in the Lecomte (G3) in the mud, then chased Girvin home as a clear second in the Risen Star. As some have pointed out, Untrapped forfeited his position on the fence to angle out for the drive, and Girvin immediately took over his vacated spot, saved the ground on the turn, and pounced. It’s an interesting counterfactual what might have happened if Untrapped had held his position, but considering how strongly Girvin finished, the decision may have affected the margin more than the outcome.
Note that Untrapped gets a rider switch to Irad Ortiz Jr. He’s well drawn in post 5, implying a cozy trip just behind the speed – if he’s good enough to capitalize. Untrapped was a distant, though hard-charging, second to Uncontested in their mutual debut at Keeneland. Five months later, over added ground, a seven-pound weight pull, and with different race dynamics, maybe Untrapped can turn the tables.
Remember to consult the free Brisnet PPs for your Rebel handicapping – and good luck!
American Anthem photo courtesy of Oaklawn/Coady Photography