The richest race so far this year on the road to the Kentucky Derby (GI) is Saturday’s $900,000 Rebel Stakes (GII) at Oaklawn Park, which is also the final prep for the track’s centerpiece event on the annual Racing Festival of the South card, the April 16 Arkansas Derby (GI).
A full field of talented three-year-olds is expected for the 1 1/16-mile Rebel, all in search of the 50 valuable Derby points offered to the winner.
The Saturday weather is expected to be beautiful and cool in Hot Springs, with partly cloudy skies and a high in the lower 60s. The forecast doesn’t call for any rain all week, so a dry, fast track is likely.
Maybe it’s the rich purse… or maybe it’s the race’s reputation as a solid Triple Crown prep (after all, American Pharoah won the Rebel last year before his legendary run)… or maybe it’s that the top two in the division — Nyquist and Mohaymen — will meet up in the Florida Derby (GI) in two weeks leaving the rest of the crop to battle it out elsewhere, but either way the Rebel appears to be one of the more exciting races so far this year.
Some really good horses have taken home the Rebel trophy over the years; in addition to American Pharoah, we’ve seen classic winners and/or champions Smarty Jones, Lookin at Lucky, Curlin, Victory Gallop, Pine Bluff, Sunny’s Halo and Temperance Hill win, just to name a few. Maybe this year, racing’s newest superstar will also emerge from the Rebel. Stranger things have happened and, after all, a year ago American Pharoah still hadn’t stamped himself as the early Derby favorite until after his Rebel win.
The top three finishers from the Southwest Stakes (GIII) — Suddenbreakingnews, Whitmore and American Dubai — are back for a rematch while a strong group of shippers, including Cupid and Ralis from California and Cherry Wine from Florida, have made their descent into Hot Springs looking to expose whatever chinks in the armor the local runners may have.
Normally, the outermost post position of 14 would cause concern for anyone, but not for the connections of Suddenbreakingnews. Not only will the bay son of Mineshaft have room to his outside at the break, he is also a stone-cold closer, as evidenced by his stunning win in the Southwest, so he doesn’t need to break on top and be hustled to the front, a situation that could seriously hamper a horse with a more forwardly placed running style. And aside from the good news about the post position, it also looks like he’ll get a good pace in the early going to run at in order to launch his patented stretch run.
Though trainer Donnie Von Hemel hasn’t started a horse in the Kentucky Derby since 1989 (Clever Trevor, who finished 13th), the veteran conditioner has saddled more than 2,000 winners over his career and has expertly handled some really good graded-stakes-caliber runners. Regular jockey Luis Quinonez will be back aboard Suddenbreakingnews and the rider appears to have figured out how to time his trip sufficiently enough to reach the wire in front if everything goes as planned.
California-bred Ralis hasn’t been seen since finishing last in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) Nov. 1, a somewhat surprising performance for the Doug O’Neill trainee. The Square Eddie colt’s future seemed awfully bright after his score in last year’s Hopeful Stakes (GI) at Saratoga, but was quickly dimmed in his two subsequent well-beaten finishes, so he was given the rest of 2015 off with a Derby campaign planned. Perhaps Ralis was raced too much as a juvenile (seven races starting in May) or maybe he just peaked in late summer, but he’s been working well at Santa Anita since late December for the comeback and, with his best performance from just off the pace, could be a factor at the wire. Owner Paul Reddam’s main rider Mario Gutierrez will be in town for the mount.
Whitmore has every right to improve off his very troubled trip last out in the Southwest. Normally a mid-pack runner, the gelded son of Pleasantly Perfect was shuffled way back early and was steadied and checked a couple times and still had run left, just not enough to hold off the late charge of Suddenbreakingnews in the stretch. Maybe a clean trip under new rider Irad Ortiz Jr. will make all the difference at what figures to be a very fair price.
Cherry Wine took a while to figure it out, but figure it out he did, winning his last two races in maiden and allowance company by a combined 15 1/4 lengths for trainer Dale Romans. The gray son of Paddy O’Prado had been slated to start in the Fountain of Youth (GII) at Gulfstream Park late last month, but spiked a fever in the days leading up to the race causing his connections to change plans in favor of the Rebel. Romans feels that Cherry Wine is a rising star in his division and believes with a good showing Saturday, will move forward to the Arkansas Derby and, eventually, the Run for the Roses.
Since most of the South is slowly eliminating any reference to the term “Rebel,” I half-anticipate this race to be renamed the “Bob Baffert Stakes” before long, mostly because he’s won the race five times and doesn’t even race regularly at Oaklawn. He tightened the girth on three winners from 2010 to 2012 and owns the last two with Hoppertunity and American Pharoah.
He sends out impressive maiden winner Cupid this year after the expensive son of Tapit was scratched from last week’s San Felipe at his home base of Santa Anita in favor of this race. Considering Baffert’s history here, it seems more a calculated move than an effort to find a softer spot. Absolutely bred to get a distance — likely, the farther, the better — Baffert’s go-to rider Martin Garcia will be in the irons again aboard Cupid.
Post time for the 56th running of the Rebel Stakes, set as the ninth on the day, has been set for 7:06 p.m. EDT.