As winter turns into spring, the Kentucky Derby preps gradually increase in quality, and that’s clearly the case with this Saturday’s Grade 2 Rebel at Oaklawn Park. Not only does this race feature proven Grade 1-caliber performers like Solomini and Sporting Chance, but it also drew some intriguing up-and-comers. First and foremost among these new shooters is the highly touted and undefeated Magnum Moon, who is likely to go to post as one of the favorites.
The TimeformUS Pace Projector is predicting a fast pace. Sporting Chance (#7) is the one that is forecasted to be on the early lead as the only designated “Leader” in the field, but plenty of other runners to his inside possess early zip. Other potential pace players include Title Ready (#1), stretching out Curlin’s Honor (#2), and recent wire-to-wire maiden winner Pryor (#6). Solomini (#3) is also shown in the first flight of stalkers, but he typically stalks the pace from close range.
Let’s go through the entire field:
#1, TITLE READY (8-1): This colt has improved with each start as the distances have increased. Following an inauspicious beginning to his career, this Charles Fipke homebred showed plenty of grit when breaking his maiden at Keeneland last fall. From there, he stayed on for third in his start against winners before taking a brief winter vacation. He made his return on Feb. 1 at Oaklawn, where trainer Steve Asmussen added blinkers for the first time. He looked like a completely new horse in that two-turn debut, racing into the bit from the start before easily drawing off in the late stages. He earned an impressive 111 TimeformUS Speed Figure for that performance, and that number has been validated by subsequent performances of the also-rans. He’s bred to relish every bit of distance that he can get as a half-brother to route stakes winner Seeking the Title and stakes-placed marathoner Perfect Title.
#2, CURLIN’S HONOR (12-1): The son of Curlin is one of the most intriguing runners in this race, since we know so little about him after two career starts. He’s clearly bred to handle longer distances, by one of the best stamina influences in the country and out of a dam that has primarily produced routers. However, so far he’s only run in six furlong races. He put up a good fight to win his debut at Keeneland last year, but then did not resurface for nearly five months. He made his comeback in a relatively soft optional claiming race at the Fair Grounds and got the job done after encountering midstretch traffic. Notably, Corey Lanerie rode him out for about another furlong past the wire that day. This colt cost a hefty sum at the Fasig-Tipton sale last year, so the sky is the limit. I just wish he had gotten an earlier start to his 3-year-old campaign, as it’s terribly difficult to make a stakes debut against a field of this quality.
#3, SOLOMINI (3-2): It’s hard to knock his 2-year-old form. He placed in three Grade 1 stakes, and was the outright winner of the Los Alamitos Futurity before getting disqualified for some minor interference in deep stretch. The only two runners who finished ahead of him last year were Bolt d’Oro and Good Magic, still two of the top two contenders for the Kentucky Derby.
If Solomini runs back to those 2017 efforts, he will be awfully tough to beat. His last three speed figures (between 117 and 123) are just faster than what his rivals have recorded thus far. However, Solomini is now getting a late start to his 3-year-old campaign after a minor setback during the winter. He’s never been a particularly enthusiastic workhorse, and he’s needed plenty of encouragement in many of his morning drills. His recent work was arguably his best, but his overall readiness to run a top effort off a layoff is still a concern. Bob Baffert, a 100-rated trainer overall, gets just a 68 Trainer Rating from TimeformUS off layoffs of 73 to 123 days. He’s one that you definitely have to use in your wagers, but I feel that others will offer better value.
#4, MAGNUM MOON (7-2): In the eyes of many, this undefeated colt is the main threat to Solomini. Todd Pletcher is so good at getting his 3-year-olds to peak in the Derby preps, and this colt indeed looks poised to put forth a top effort in his third career start. His debut was legitimately fast, as he earned a massive 115 TimeformUS Speed Figure while easily drawing clear late in that six-furlong sprint. That number was validated when third-place finisher Machismo returned to destroy a maiden field next time out while improving his speed figure by 13 points.
Rather than immediately throwing him to the wolves, Pletcher elected to give him an easier assignment for his first test around two turns. Sent off as the 1-10 favorite in that Feb. 15 optional claiming event, Magnum Moon got a useful education while still showcasing his ample ability. Luis Saez had a handful of horse as he schooled him behind runners for the first part of the race. Once angled out in the lane, Saez barely had to ask him for run before he inhaled the front-runners and galloped home to an easy score. He doesn’t appear to be a particularly headstrong colt, so Saez should be able to orchestrate a similar trip in this spot. My only issue with him is that these horses typically take plenty of money, so I expect him to go off at an even shorter price than his 7-2 morning line. That said, he’s indisputably a top threat to the favorite.
#5, HIGHER POWER (20-1): This half-brother to millionaire router Alternation has done little wrong in three career starts, but he’s yet to run a particularly fast race. Supporters may try to point to the fact that he defeated a next-out winner in his Jan. 13 optional claiming win. However, that horse, New York Central, was one of the beneficiaries of the strong rail bias on the Southwest undercard.
#6, PRYOR (30-1): Speaking of that “gold rail” on the Southwest undercard, here’s another colt that was able to use the bias to his advantage. He secured the rail and the lead from his inner post position in that Feb. 19 maiden race and easily drew clear while never straying far from that coveted inside path. His prior efforts are not nearly as strong, and he faces an uphill battle from a pace perspective this time.
#7, SPORTING CHANCE (5-1): Of the trio of runners returning from the Southwest, this colt is the one that stands a chance to take the greatest step forward. He stamped himself as one of the top 2-year-old of his generation after winning the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga despite drifting out sharply in the final strides of that race. A minor setback caused him to miss the rest of his juvenile campaign, but he returned in time to squeeze in three Kentucky Derby preps.
While he did spent the majority of his trip riding that biased inside path in the Southwest, I still thought he ran a respectable race considering the circumstances. It was the first time he had ever rated behind other horses during a race, as well as his first attempt around two turns – all while returning from a five-month layoff. He handled the change in tactics well. Luis Saez shook the reins at him a couple of times around the far turn and he jumped into the bit quickly, forcing Saez to tap on the brakes each time. Once they found a seam at the top of the stretch, Sporting Chance had only just begun to accelerate when today’s rival, Combatant, slammed into him from the outside, forcing him to briefly steady. He regained his composure to finish third, but probably would have been a bit closer without that trouble. Since then, D. Wayne Lukas has gotten a series of stiff workouts into him, including a rare one-mile drill last week. I love his draw for this pace scenario, as he’s posted well outside of the other speeds. He’s capable of setting the pace or stalking, and I expect him to be right in the mix until the end. He’s the selection for a mild upset.
#8, HIGH NORTH (12-1): He’s yet to prove that he’s quite up to the challenge of tackling top class 3-year-olds. He worked out a favorable ground-saving trip in the Risen Star last month, but just couldn’t quite go with the leaders in the late stages. A total pace collapse would help him, but I’m not sure we’re going to get that despite the prediction of a fast early pace.
#9, ZING ZANG (20-1): This horse would really need some help from the early leaders to have a chance at taking down the top prize. Like his stablemate Combatant, he was wide throughout in the Southwest, racing well off that preferred inside path. On the other hand, the early pace was legitimate and Combatant, who ultimately finished second, was racing with him toward the back of the pack in the early stages. Ultimately, he just doesn’t possess the quickness to stick with the best closers at this level. He’s bred to keep getting better with distance so he’s one to watch for the future, but a minor award seems like his best hope once again on this occasion.
#10, COMBATANT (8-1): If you like to bet horses off against-the-bias trips, this is probably the runner you want in this race. He was the only runner among the top four finishers in the Southwest that did not ride the rail for a significant portion of his trip. Rather, he was wide throughout after breaking from an outside post position. It briefly appeared as if he was going to threaten the eventual winner at the top of the stretch, but he veered into Sporting Chance and lost some momentum. He also had a right to flatten out in the late stages given his far more taxing trip. He figures to offer value in this race as no better than the fourth choice. On the other hand, I wonder about this colt’s distance limitations. There’s more sprint pedigree on the dam’s side of his pedigree and Scat Daddy is not the strongest stamina influence. He’s versatile enough to run well even without the aid of a very fast pace, so I expect him to make his way into the trifecta. It just feels like one or two others may prove better once again.
#11, BODE’S MAKER (50-1): Even his best efforts are too slow to make him a threat here.
Solomini (#3) and Magnum Moon (#4) are a formidable duo and cannot be excluded from my wagers despite their relatively short prices. Yet I am taking a small shot against them with Sporting Chance (#7). I think this colt is going to show up with a better effort here, and I’m confident that he’s going to work out a decent trip from this mid-field post position. Anything around his morning line price of 5-1 would represent decent value. At bigger prices, I also want to throw in the improving Title Ready (#1) and reliable Combatant (#10).
Exacta Key Box: 7 with 1,3,4,10
Trifecta: 7 with 1,3,4 with 1,2,3,4,9,10