The current round of 50-20-10-5 Kentucky Derby-point prep races comes to an end on Saturday [March 13] with the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn Park.
This key step on the road to the Derby drew a field of eight 3-year-olds going 1 1/16 miles. The winner, who earns 50 Derby qualifying points, is considered a shoo-in for a spot in the starting gate in the Run for the Roses on May 1.
In the past few weeks, a trio of serious contenders stepped up. The leader of the pack, by far according to future wagering, is unbeaten Life Is Good, who cruised wire-to-wire in the San Felipe (G2) for Hall of Fame train Bob Baffert. He is expected to run next in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) on April 3.
The others are Greatest Honour, winner of the Fountain of Youth (G2) for trainer Shug McGaughey and running next in the Florida Derby (G1) on March 27, and 2-year-old champion Essential Quality, also unbeaten, won the Southwest (G3) and could run next in the Blue Grass (G2) on April 3.
On Saturday, it’s the Rebel with a top-heavy field that features three horses that can ascend to top Derby contender status: Caddo River, Keepmeinmind, and Concert Tour.
The Rebel is part of a five stakes card that also includes the seasonal debut of Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) champion Whitmore in the Hot Springs Stakes (G3), which he will be trying to win for the fifth straight year.
Opened eyes last time out with a tour de force 10-length wire-to-wire victory in the Smarty Jones for Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox in the horse’s 3-year-old debut. Shows an excellent improving pattern in his four-race career, getting better each time. Both two-turn efforts have been big wire-to-wire wins at 1 mile and he should be able to stretch that speed at to the 1 1/16-mile Rebel distance. Florent Geroux, who has been aboard the wins at Churchill Downs and Oaklawn is back for the mount. Speed and the rail. Much to like about the 9-5 morning-line favorite.
The first of two Rebel entrants from the barn of leading trainer Steve Asmussen, with Asmussen’s main man Ricardo Santana, Jr., aboard. Big Lake ships in from the Fair Grounds, where he improved over the winter in two wins at 1 1/16 miles. Won two in a row and deserves a shot here for the top local jockey-trainer combination, but the speed figures have not been in the ballpark of the top horses in this field and did not show enough forward progress last time out to get excited about at this stage.
Trainer Bob Baffert has won the Rebel a record seven times and chose to ship the recent maiden winner for a crack at becoming a Derby contender. Unlike stablemate Convert Tour, also in the field, Hozier is already proven a 1 1/16 miles with a maiden win in his last race. Comes in with a bullet workout at Santa Anita and posted a similar bullet in the days preceding his maiden win. The question is whether he’s good enough to handle the class rise. He ran against Concert Tour in the career debut for both horses and lost that day by 14 lengths. Has a long way to go to turn the tables, but with Baffert at Oaklawn, and particularly in the Rebel, never say never.
Won Santa Anita’s main prep for last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) in the American Pharoah (G2) ahead of such challengers as Rombauer and Spielberg, but then never made it to the Breeders’ Cup and has been sidelined ever since. Makes the 3-year-old debut off nearly a six-month layoff. A forgotten horse in the field for trainer Peter Miller, who reached out and found Javier Castellano to ride. Grade 1 winner has the ability, now the question will be if he is ready off the layoff. Morning line odds are an incentive to get in this horse’s corner as an alternative to the top three favorites.
Owns two wins in six lifetime starts, including most notably his last time out in a victory at Oaklawn in his two-turn debut at 1 1/16 miles over a muddy track. Along with the two wins have come four losses, and while that last-out win was promising, it wasn’t quite fast enough to put him in the same category yet with some of these top rivals. The other horses in this field are untested on a wet track, so his best chance to grab a piece of the action would seem to be in the mud.
Has been ready to go for quite a while and now finally gets to make his 3-year-old debut off a three-month layoff. He won last fall’s Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) on the heels of a closing third-place finish in the BC Juvenile. Was scheduled to return in Oaklawn’s Southwest which was originally scheduled last month but opted to run in the Rebel for the million-dollar purse when the Southwest suffered two weeks of weather delays. Definitely prefers a live pace up front and is likely to get it here as the lone closer in a race loaded with speed and tactical speed. Should be racing detached from the rest of the field and looking to make a sweeping late run, and that strategy could prove successful if Concert Tour can’t get the added distance and goes fast enough to burn-out front-running Caddo River on the lead. He is trained by last year’s Oaklawn leading trainer Robertino Diodoro, who has been red-hot following a slow start to the meet. Looks good for a slice of the Rebel, at very least.
As mentioned, Baffert owns the Rebel with seven career wins, including last year with Nadal, who, like Concert Tour, won the 7-furlong San Vicente before taking this race. A horse like this coming into this two-turn debut off two sprint races might be viewed skeptically, especially as one of the low-priced favorites, but with Baffert you must assume he can get the distance. Earned a giant speed figure in the San Vicente in a race that has lost a slight amount of luster now that runner-up Freedom Fighter shipped to Aqueduct for the Gotham (G3) and flopped badly. Joel Rosario has the mount and enjoys great success for Baffert, and at Oaklawn where he has 10 wins in 26 races dating back to last season. Talented runner boasts the connections you want, but whether he’s another Nadal remains to be seen.
Makes 3-year-old debut for Steve Asmussen off a four-month layoff, and will need to turn the tables on Keepmeinmind, who finished ahead of him in last fall’s Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland in a race won by juvenile champion Essential Quality. Had the opportunity to go on and run in the BC Juvenile last year, but instead Asmussen opted to end his 2-year-old campaign in Churchill’s Street Sense Stakes, which he then lost as the odds-on favorite. Joe Talamo has the mount. Not out of this but will need a huge improvement to stand any chance.
Baffert always gets the benefit of the doubt in the Rebel, right? That’s good news for #7 Concert Tour, and his other starter, #3 Hozier. Nevertheless, speed and the rail are too tempting to pass up with #1 Caddo River, who has cruised wire-to-wire twice in a row and looked good doing it both times. He will be under pace pressure, but unless Baffert’s Concert Tour wants to do all the dirty work, Caddo River might not be caught with the help of Oaklawn’s relatively short stretch run.
If Concert Tour does opt to send, it might, in fact, hurt the chances of both horses unless Concert Tour is as freakishly good as Nadal was last year. If not, the tiring frontrunners scenario represents the best chance for #6 Keepmeinmind to win from far off the pace. Even if that doesn’t happen, Keepmeinmind should be charging late for a share.
The wild card will be #4 Get Her Number, who clearly is good enough to win if ready. If you lean in this horse’s direction you will be rewarded with decent odds. However, Get Her Number will need to survive a probable hot pace that already includes Concert Tour and Caddo River.
Bet on #1 Caddo River to win, and concentrate exotics play in the trifectas with a chalky trifecta box using #1 Caddo River, #6 Keepmeinmind, and #7 Concert Tour. Also play a back-up trifecta keying #1 Caddo River over 6, 7, and the #4 Get Her Number, who could add value to the exotics at overlay odds.
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.