Racing Roundtable: Rebel, Honeybee, and Saudi Cup

February 28th, 2023

James Scully, Kellie Reilly, and Vance Hanson devote this week's Racing Roundtable to recapping Rebel Day at Oaklawn Park and the events of the Saudi Cup program from last Saturday.

How informative was the Rebel (G2) as a Kentucky Derby (G1) prep?

James Scully: Immediate reactions to an 18-1 upset in the slop tend to be negative, but I'm buying the Rebel as a viable prep. After an uninspiring juvenile campaign, Confidence Game has clearly improved as a three-year-old, and the progressive colt put it all together for Keith Desormeaux, racing just off the early speed before offering a sharp move to seize control entering the stretch. His tactical speed offers appeal given the abundance of late-running types lining up for the Kentucky Derby, and his pedigree is built for longer distances. By Candy Ride, Confidence Game's well-beaten third in January's Lecomte (G3) was better than it looks on paper, as he prompted a blistering second quarter before easily holding Risen Star undercard allowance winner Denington clear in fourth. Confidence Game continued to show more in the Rebel, guaranteeing his Kentucky Derby participation with the 50-point prize.

Red Route One, a fast-closing second in the Southwest (G3), produced another fine rally for runner-up honors. Reincarnate, a wire-to-wire winner in his previous two starts, figures to benefit greatly from the experience, overcoming a slow start and being stopped in the stretch by a tiring rival to record a sneaky third. I would not dismiss the Kentucky Derby chances of the top three.

Kellie Reilly: I was a card-carrying fan of Reincarnate going into the Rebel, and his never-say-die effort in defeat only confirmed my high opinion of him. Tim Yakteen's new recruit (from Bob Baffert) was shipping and facing a sloppy track for the first time, had trouble at the start, found himself uncharacteristically at the rear, picked up to rally, got shut off, checked hard midstretch, and still recovered for third. With a halfway decent trip, Reincarnate's a lot closer — if not the winner. He's the most serious Derby threat coming out of this race.

As far as the top two are concerned, Confidence Game proved more tactically versatile than I'd imagined, after disappointing in prior preps, and Red Route One lived up to his profile as a consistent closer. Since both had been beaten previously by Instant Coffee, they boosted his stock, although with an asterisk. Confidence Game ran far better in the Oaklawn slop than he did when a fading third to Instant Coffee in the Lecomte. Red Route One was a traffic-riddled fourth in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2), or else he could have fought out the finish with Instant Coffee. Recently second to Arabian Knight in the Southwest, Red Route One paid him a heftier compliment here.

Vance Hanson: There's always some doubt whether a race held over an off track represents a true bill, but in the case of the Rebel, it seems more likely than not that the result was an accurate reflection of the relative merits of the horses involved. An honest pace unsurprisingly played to the advantage of closers, but it's hard to argue the top three didn't bring form worthy of merit into the Rebel. The form of the Nov. 26 Churchill allowance Confidence Game won has worked out real well, and perhaps all he needed was a stronger pace in which to close into. It was a much better trip than he received in the Lecomte.

I'm afraid Red Route One's deep closing tendencies are going to continue working against him. He needs to learn how to get involved sooner, though perhaps the longer distances he'll get to run in his next couple of starts will help in that regard. Reincarnate encountered trouble when attempting to bid in the stretch, but that might be an overstated factor going forward. The bottom line is that he was fortunate not to get involved in the early pace flow, though he's probably more effective racing on or near the lead than he'll ever be trying to rally from behind. Time will tell.

Did we learn anything in the Honeybee (G3)?

JS: Wet Paint will move up if the track is wet for the May 5 Kentucky Oaks (G1). The Godolphin homebred daughter of Blame loves the slop, improving to 3-for-3 over wet tracks with a rallying three-length win in the Honeybee, and Wet Paint has established herself as an up-and-coming filly for Brad Cox. But her Brisnet Speed ratings must catch up to her blossoming form, as Wet Paint netted only an 89 figure in the Honeybee.

KR: We'd have learned a lot more on a fast track. Wet Paint's performance was very much like her Martha Washington S. victory over the same track and trip, on a similarly off track. Once again she kicked into overdrive late to win going away, in hand, only this time from even further behind. In principle, the daughter of Blame should act on a fast track, but the real uncertainty is whether her deep-closing style would be as effective. If she's loving the slop more than her toiling rivals, Wet Paint can overcome a bigger deficit. Can she do the same on a level playing field? For whatever it's worth, her dam, the Grade 3-placed Street Cry mare Sky Painter, was a turf performer, and Wet Paint's ferocious finish might ultimately play best on the grass.

VH: That Wet Paint is the obvious class of the three-year-old fillies stabled at Oaklawn. Even with a slow pace not working to her advantage, she still managed to gobble up her rivals and won going away. Because both of her stakes wins at Oaklawn have occurred over off tracks — indeed, all three of her wins have been in those conditions — there are still unanswered questions regarding her fast-track ability. Hopefully dryer conditions will prevail next month for the Fantasy (G3), when we can get a better gauge on her ahead of the Kentucky Oaks.

Biggest impressions from Saudi Cup Day?

JS: Sprint champion Elite Power, who didn't make his first stakes appearance until October, continues to progress for Bill Mott, recording an outstanding win in the Riyadh Dirt Sprint (G3). The five-year-old son of Curlin looks set for a fun season. And what happened to Taiba in the Saudi Cup (G1)? Stablemate Country Grammer ran well for second, but Taiba came up empty as the favorite, weakening to be a well-beaten eighth. It was tough to envision the dud performance following his smashing win in the Dec. 26 Malibu (G1) at Santa Anita, the third Grade 1 win of his three-year-old season, but Taiba remains eligible to regroup stateside for Bob Baffert.

KR: Saudi Cup Day was another terrific international festival for Japan, especially trainer Yoshito Yahagi, who sent out two of the three Japanese winners — Panthalassa in the Saudi Cup (G1) and Bathrat Leon in the 1351 Turf Sprint (G3). Both had also won on last year's Dubai World Cup card. In hindsight, Bathrat Leon's wire job in the 2022 Godolphin Mile (G2) on dirt was a foreshadowing of Panthalassa's Saudi Cup display. Beyond illustrating surface versatility, his victory underscores a curious point about Japan's contrasting fortunes in the Saudi Cup. A turf runner scored their breakthrough, while the Japanese dirt horses have tended to underperform in the $20 million event. It's all the more intriguing because Japan has had plenty of success in the dirt stakes on the undercard in the past. But their premier surface is turf, and perhaps that's why it took a turfiste to win the world's richest race for Japan. This will be my working hypothesis, at least until a Japanese dirt horse wins the Saudi Cup!

VH: Champion sprinter Elite Power looked amazing winning the Riyadh Dirt Sprint, and I'm excited to see what else he'll accomplish the rest of the season. Frankie Dettori rode an outstanding race on the Juddmonte homebred, getting him to deliver a scintillating effort after getting him out of the way of the kickback that appeared to be compromising his performance early in the race.

The victory by Mostahdaf in the Neom Turf Cup (G3) was similarly eye-catching. Though there wasn't a ton of substance to the field, Gosden pere et fils appear to have an exciting prospect for the European season, and the horse will have many options in the 10-12 furlong range. I'd also give a shout-out to Country Grammer for another strong Middle East performance. It's unfortunate he's come up short in the last two editions of the Saudi Cup, which has cost his connections additional millions in purse money, but the horse obviously needs a minimum of 1 1/4 miles for his best chance. Another unfortunate circumstance for him is there are so few of those kind of races left in the U.S.