Racing Roundtable: Rebel Stakes and Saudi Cup

March 1st, 2022

Following an upset-filled weekend at Oaklawn Park and in Saudi Arabia, editors James Scully, Kellie Reilly, and Vance Hanson are back with observations on what transpired.

Are there any positives to take out of the Rebel (G2)?

James Scully: Not for the Kentucky Derby (G1). Un Ojo is improving, getting up late to post a 75-1 upset, and recent maiden scorer Ethereal Road, a half-length second, may continue to show more following his first attempt against winners, but the Rebel was a slow race based upon Brisnet Speed ratings.

Kellie Reilly:
The one bright spot was the performance of Ethereal Road. The D. Wayne Lukas trainee backed up his visually impressive maiden win by just missing despite a wide trip, and he promises to keep advancing on the learning curve. Yet Ethereal Road needs to improve to catch up to his stablemate, Secret Oath, who crushed the Honeybee (G3) in considerably faster time. Indeed, the Rebel doesn't stack up well from either a form or time perspective. Even allowing for the deteriorating track conditions since the Honeybee, the Rebel also came up slower (1:45.69) than an allowance (1:45.45) and maiden (1:45.63) contested in the interim.

Vance Hanson: The short-term answer would be no. It's rather paradoxical that one of the slowest preps from earlier this season, the Withers (G3), yielded the winner of the Rebel, but there you have it. Like any race the Rebel will be better in some years than in others, and this one likely will not be looked back at as a vintage renewal. On a macro level, scheduling the Rebel two weeks earlier this year perhaps wasn't a great thing. While handle seemed to have stayed level compared to recent years, it was an aesthetic disappointment with raw weather and a lackluster field. Sure, you can't control the former, but on average it's more likely to be better on the second or third Saturday in March rather than in late February.

Un Ojo wins the Rebel S. 2022 (Photo by Coady Photography/Oaklawn Park)

Should Secret Oath take a swing at the Arkansas Derby (G1)?

JS: Yes. Secret Oath lays over the competition in three-year-old filly races at Oaklawn Park, overcoming trouble to record an impressive 7 1/2-length victory in the Honeybee, and she ran much faster than males in the Rebel later on the program. The Kentucky Oaks (G1) will be a valuable backup option if she doesn't fare well in the Arkansas Derby.

KR: I was already thinking along those lines in last Friday's jury, wondering if the Triple Crown-nominated filly might run faster in the Honeybee and set herself up for a tilt versus the boys. Her authoritative performance makes her the most exciting three-year-old at Oaklawn. There aren't any overwhelming males on the scene, unless Baffert decides to ship Messier. Both pedigree and running style suggest that Secret Oath can take on the Arkansas Derby without compromising her long-term prospects. In fact, the daughter of Arrogate should keep thriving with maturity. But you never know how many opportunities you might get in this game. Capitalize when circumstances are favorable, and Secret Oath could be poised for a career-defining win. 

VH: Given the weakness of the Rebel, it's certainly an option her connections should keep open. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas said after the Honeybee they would take a wait-and-see approach, and that's an acceptable way forward. If the Arkansas Derby field shapes up as only a moderate one, then I wouldn't blame connections for taking a shot at a more prestigious race that's winnable instead of turning in what would presumably be nothing more than a useful workout in the Fantasy (G3). Her place in the Kentucky Oaks is secure no matter what. One thing Lukas has been pretty strong at during his Hall of Fame career is knowing which spot is a good one for placing a filly or mare in against males. A case in point was running his juvenile champion filly Althea in the 1984 Arkansas Derby, which she won by seven lengths.

Did we learn anything from the Saudi Cup (G1)?

JS: I didn't. Emblem Road, a 113-1 upsetter, had never raced outside of Saudi Arabia. Runner-up Country Grammer, making only his third start in 19 months and first since May, outperformed his long odds on the front end. Midnight Bourbon, who wound up third and always places, was the only one in the trifecta who didn't come as a surprise – it was a strange race where most of the top contenders failed to fire. The March 26 Dubai World Cup (G1), which is expected to attract Emblem Road and Country Grammer, should tell us more.

KR: It's Russian roulette if horses will turn up with their best, or fail spectacularly. Some no-shows were impossible to foresee, whether they struggled to cope with the surface (regardless of their overall dirt prowess), or just didn't fire on the night. Defending champion Mishriff and favored Mandaloun turned in the worst races of their lives. Japanese champion T O Keynes was the first one beaten on the backstretch, and Art Collector folded tamely on the turn for home. Those simultaneous flops set the stage for the shock win by locally-based Emblem Road. If comebacker Country Grammer had been able to get a prep, maybe he has enough left to hold on. In any event, razor-sharp form over the Riyadh track counted for more than international class. Emblem Road's stablemate, Making Miracles, likewise punched above his weight to finish fourth. The world's richest race was virtually un-handicappable.

VH: Although the lure of 20 million big ones needs no explanation, I'm sure many bettors are still scratching their heads at the jump-up performance by the locally-based Emblem Road (who, in retrospect, did have one good form line with Great Scot, last year's third-place finisher who didn't draw in from the also-eligible list Saturday) and the puzzling, non-efforts turned in by the likes Mandaloun and Mishriff. The Saudi Cup is still in its infancy and like any race will not always be run true to form. However, due to the seeming "one-off" nature of the event, it could continue being a challenging exercise for bettors to decipher which ship-ins will readily adjust to the exotic surroundings and which ones won't.