Belmont Stakes international scouting report: Rebel's Romance

May 23rd, 2021

Rebel’s Romance earned a Kentucky Derby (G1) ticket with a dominant display in the UAE Derby (G2), but his Godolphin team circled the Belmont S. (G1) as a more suitable target. Trainer Charlie Appleby’s discretion could pay dividends at Belmont Park. There Rebel’s Romance is expected to join another once-beaten homebred, champion Essential Quality, in pursuit of a first U.S. classic for the Godolphin blue.

Between his own profile and Appleby’s record, Rebel’s Romance has a proper chance of performing well in the 1 1/2-mile test. And judging by how he’s responded to patient handling and outside trips, he’s found a good match in Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith, a three-time Belmont winner.

Rebel’s Romance has indicated he has the raw talent. The question is his time frame for fulfilling it. Connections have consistently described him as the type who’ll thrive with age and maturity. If the Belmont comes a bit soon for his physical peak, how far might his class and stamina carry him?

Historical challenge

As an international shipper and a gelding, Rebel’s Romance would be a rare Belmont winner in each category. Only two geldings have won the third jewel, Creme Fraiche (1985) and Ruler on Ice (2011). That stat is less meaningful, however, especially since geldings were not eligible for the Belmont from 1919 through 1956.

More relevant is that Rebel’s Romance is trying to become the first international to win the Belmont since Irish invader Go and Go back in 1990. In the ensuing years, horses based in Europe or Dubai have gone 0-for-12, including four who’d run in the Kentucky Derby. That stat slips to 0-for-14 if you include the Japanese (which we’ll mention in the scouting report on France Go de Ina).

But two of the European shippers were fine seconds. My Memoirs (1992) got within a length of A.P. Indy, and Gronkowski (2018), who’d just been transferred to Chad Brown, closed behind Triple Crown sweeper Justify.

Power-packed pedigree

Irish-bred Rebel’s Romance is by the outstanding Dubawi, who made history in April as the first British stallion to sire 200 stakes winners. Himself a son of the great but ill-fated Dubai Millennium, Dubawi is carrying on his legacy with a profusion of high-class runners across all surfaces. His dirt aptitude has become clear over the years at the Dubai Carnival and on World Cup night. He’s sired two Dubai World Cup (G1) winners, Monterosso (2012) on Meydan’s old Tapeta and Prince Bishop (2015) on dirt. Rebel’s Romance is Dubawi’s second UAE Derby hero, after Mubtaahij (2015), who went on to finish fourth to Triple Crown champion American Pharoah in the Belmont.

Rebel’s Romance is out of Minidress, a daughter of 2002 Dubai World Cup and Stephen Foster H. (G1) star Street Cry, later famous as the sire of Winx and Zenyatta. Stakes-placed Minidress was a close runner-up in the 2012 Height of Fashion over 1 1/4 miles at Goodwood in her fourth and final start. Although untested beyond that trip, Minidress is a full sister to current Group 3-winning stayer Volcanic Sky, victorious over as far as two miles. Their dam, multiple Group 3 scorer Short Skirt, placed in the 2006 Epsom Oaks (G1) and Yorkshire Oaks (G1). This is the prolific family of Japanese champion Victoire Pisa, who landed the 2011 Dubai World Cup on Tapeta.

Devotees of the pedigree pattern known as the Rasmussen Factor – inbreeding to superior females – will take note that Rebel’s Romance has a duplication of Slightly Dangerous, one of Juddmonte’s blue hens.

Appleby’s North American strike rate

Appleby boasts a terrific strike rate at the Breeders’ Cup, with three winners from just seven starters. In addition to Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) heroes Outstrip (2013) and Line of Duty (2018), he sent out Wuheida to capture the 2017 Filly & Mare Turf (G1). Wild Illusion was second in the same race in 2018. Appleby has also plundered Grade 1s at Woodbine, courtesy of La Pelosa in the 2018 Natalma (G1) and Old Persian in the 2019 Northern Dancer Turf (G1).

Very selective in his transatlantic ventures, Appleby has had a total of 15 North American starters in his career, for a win percentage of 33%. Just over half (eight) have finished in the money.

Note that Appleby has managed to accomplish previously elusive goals for Godolphin. Masar, an unlucky sixth in the 2017 Juvenile Turf, became the operation’s first Epsom Derby (G1) winner the following season. Also in 2018, Appleby dispatched Cross Counter to Australia to give Godolphin a first Melbourne Cup (G1) trophy. It would fit the pattern for Appleby to score a Belmont breakthrough.

British all-weather wins

Rebel’s Romance took a while to get ready as a juvenile, between his size and his behavior. “A bit of a boy” early on, in Appleby’s phrase, he had to be gelded last summer. Rebel’s Romance then got his act together to win both of his starts.

Unveiled Oct. 26 on Newcastle’s Tapeta, the 9-2 chance was off a beat slow but soon regrouped to take up a stalking role. Rebel’s Romance displayed some greenness in the about one-mile affair, changing leads a couple of times and drifting a bit as he forged clear. Yet for that very reason, his performance was full of promise for the future.

Runner-up Movin Time and third-placer Carrothers, likewise first-time starters, are worth mentioning. Movin Time was subsequently second to the promising Mithras. Opening 2021 with a Newmarket maiden romp, Movin Time holds entries in the King Edward VII (G2) at Royal Ascot and the Irish Derby (G1). Carrothers won his two ensuing starts, albeit at Southwell. Of greater interest is his new ownership. Acquired by a partnership including and Medallion Racing, Carrothers was transferred to Bill Mott stateside and made a late Triple Crown nominee.

Rebel’s Romance followed up Nov. 18 at Kempton, in a manner that caught the attention of Timeform. Shouldering top weight of 135 pounds, and giving upwards of seven pounds to his rivals, the 11-10 favorite raced more prominently, grabbed the lead, and quickened to a four-length victory.

His time of 1:37.95 stacked up well for the Polytrack mile, and the next three across the line have all gone on to win. Runner-up Anmaat resurfaced to score at Lingfield May 4; third Highland Rocker placed to Derby entry Inigo Jones before winning at Ripon April 15; and fourth Bay Bridge has improved markedly to take two in a row, including the May 15 London Gold Cup, a valuable Newbury handicap that’s often a stepping stone to bigger things.

Success on Dubai dirt

Rebel’s Romance made a persuasive case to join Appleby’s team for Dubai, where he would have the chance to try dirt. His starting point at Meydan was the Jan. 14 conditions race dubbed the UAE 2000 Guineas Trial.

Appleby had a pre-race concern that proved true, as Rebel’s Romance was one of the slowest out of the gate. But it ended up not mattering when he eventually improved position. Gathering momentum out wide with his long stride, the odds-on favorite struck the front and held the late surge of Mouheeb. Regular pilot William Buick was trying to give him an easy introduction to the surface, with bigger targets ahead, and he did just enough to stay unbeaten.

Mouheeb complimented Rebel’s Romance by coming right back to win the UAE 2000 Guineas (G3). Finishing third was Appleby’s Naval Crown, who’s since performed to a higher standard back on the British turf, notably taking fourth in the original 2000 Guineas (G1) at Newmarket May 1.

Saudi reverse

Rebel’s Romance went instead to the $1.5 million Saudi Derby on the Feb. 20 Saudi Cup undercard. Initially, the joint favorite worked out a similar trip around the one-turn metric mile at King Abdulaziz Racetrack, not quick from the gate (post 11) but eventually reaching contention.

Unlike at Meydan, however, Rebel’s Romance clung to his wrong lead for most of the stretch and never could get to the leaders. He was laboring en route to his only loss, a weary fourth behind Japan’s shocker Pink Kamehameha.

It’s likely that the still-developing Rebel’s Romance wasn’t ready for a big international event at that stage. In hindsight, though, another factor might have contributed to his effort: the Saudi dirt is deeper than Meydan’s, and not all enjoy it.

UAE Derby rebound

Rebel’s Romance gained revenge on Pink Kamehameha with a new career high in the UAE Derby back at Meydan. Bettors had lost faith after Saudi, for he went off at 8-1 in Britain (12-1 on this side of the pond). Appleby said that the combination of his physical progression, and the step up in trip to about 1 3/16 miles, was decisive in his reversal of form. 

As usual, Rebel’s Romance needed time to organize himself through the opening quarter. He had only two horses behind him, including France Go de Ina. Buick kept him well wide, ensuring room for him to use his stride. Rebel’s Romance steadily advanced until overpowering the field in 1:56.28, the second-fastest UAE Derby time since Meydan converted to dirt in 2015.

Favoring the Belmont over the Kentucky Derby

Given his profile as an indifferent starter who requires time and space to wind up into a relentless gallop, the Kentucky Derby would have been a culture shock for him. The Belmont, on the other hand, is more his style of race – if he’s continued along the developmental curve.

That was my one scruple about Rebel’s Romance going into Saudi as well as the UAE Derby. After the Guineas Trial in January, Appleby observed that whatever he did this season was a “bonus,” for he’d come into his own as a four-year-old.

The UAE Derby is a pretty big bonus, suggesting that perhaps Rebel’s Romance is improving ahead of schedule. The Belmont tilt is especially significant since Appleby has discussed the need for careful management of the gelding. Without the urgency of compiling a resume for stud, Rebel’s Romance can have a much longer racing career than the usual Godolphin stars – if handled well.

Appleby must see the Belmont fitting that project, while sending three of his stablemates along for other stakes. Althiqa and Summer Romance are set for the Just a Game (G1) on Belmont Day, and Desert Peace is a candidate for the June 4 True North (G2).