Due to an unfortunate series of events in California, this year’s Rebel Stakes has been split into two divisions, with each featuring a sizable contingent from that West Coast track. Bob Baffert sends out the star attractions in each race. Last year’s 2-year-old champion Game Winner makes his return in the second division, and highly regarded Los Alamitos Futurity winner Improbable returns just over an hour earlier in the first. The original plan had been for these stablemates to face off against each other in the now-cancelled San Felipe. Yet now they will each go to post as heavy favorites in separate spots.
The first division of the Rebel, which goes as the 8th race on Saturday’s card at Oaklawn Park, is generally considered the weaker of the two divisions. While many of the front-runners entered for the Rebel wound up in the second division, this race is still predicted to feature a fast pace by the Pace Projector.
Only two horses are expected to be in front of Improbable in the early going, as Classy John (#7) and Galilean (#8) figure to contest the early lead. The former has flashed plenty of speed in sprint races, so it’s unlikely that any of these rivals will challenge him in the early stages. Galilean and Improbable (#9) should relax into a good stalking position. Despite the fast pace characterization, this heat does not feature any formidable closers and is likely to be dominated by horses racing close to the pace. In fact, Improbable’s Late Pace Rating of 84 is one of the highest in the field.
Let’s start by sorting out the main contenders in Division 1, beginning with the heavy favorite:
#9, IMPROBABLE (3-5): Many regard this colt as Bob Baffert’s leading Kentucky Derby candidate, despite the fact that Game Winner is the reigning champion in this division. That may be partly due to the fact that there are some parallels to be drawn between this colt and last year’s Triple Crown winner Justify. On a superficial level, both are robust chestnut colts whose faces are marked by striking white blazes, and each is campaigned by a WinStar and China Horse Club partnership. Yet, the similarities do not end there. Improbable enters the Triple Crown prep races undefeated and largely unchallenged. Like Justify, Improbable is sired by a stallion known for getting speedy progeny, yet his female family features strong stamina influences. Improbable has been sent off as the odds-on choice in each career start, and that trend is unlikely to change in the Rebel.
Following a workmanlike maiden score at 6 furlongs, he has been untouchable ever since Bob Baffert stretched him out in distance. Racing fans were buzzing following his visually impressive score in the Street Sense over the Churchill Downs strip, and that hype was then validated when he put forth a dazzling effort to take the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity in December. The 118 TimeformUS Speed Figure that he earned for that performance is the highest in this field, and Improbable was not even fully extended in that victory. Reports of this colt’s training regimen at Santa Anita are glowing, and all indications seem to be that he is primed for a peak effort on return. I’m not trying to beat him. The obvious selection.
#8, GALILEAN (3-1): This California-bred runner is widely regarded as the primary threat to Improbable, and some would even go so far as to suggest that he is the one horse most likely to prevent a Bob Baffert sweep of both Rebel divisions. While I acknowledge that Galilean has been visually impressive in his two most recent victories, I would advise his supporters to temper their enthusiasm. The two 109 TimeformUS Speed Figures that he was assigned for those two-turn victories are significantly lower than the best numbers that Improbable has achieved. Some may argue that Galilean could have run faster had Flavien Prat set him down to an all-out drive in the stretch of those races, but such assertions rarely come to fruition. This colt gets a significant class test in his first start against open company. While he’s been dominant in his recent victories, all of those who finished behind him are probably bound for the claiming ranks in the near future. I would prefer to look elsewhere in search of an alternative to the favorite. Unappealing as the likely second choice.
#1, EXTRA HOPE (6-1): This son of Shanghai Bobby was no match for Improbable when they met in the Los Alamitos Futurity last December, but it is worth noting that Extra Hope had significant trouble heading into the clubhouse turn. He was carried wide by a rank rival to his inside, whereas Improbable was unaffected by that disturbance. All things considered, Extra Hope recovered well to rally for third that day, confirming that he has ample stamina to put forth a top effort going today’s 1 1/16-mile distance. His connections set their sights a bit lower for his 3-year-old debut in late January, as he dominated a group of allowance horses in fast time over a sloppy track. For a colt that had been somewhat sluggish in the early portions of his sprint races last summer, it was encouraging to see him flash such improved early speed last time. The 114 TimeformUS Speed Figure that he was assigned for that performance represents a significant improvement on his 2-year-old form and puts him in the mix here. I get the sense that this runner is just starting to figure things out and he may yet have another forward move in him. Given the lack of depth after the favorite in this division, Extra Hope has an excellent chance to fill out the exacta. The main threat.
#2, LONG RANGE TODDY (10-1): While I have not been thrilled with the local 3-year-olds that we have seen at Oaklawn Park so far this year, I do get the sense that this son of Will Take Charge may be the best of the lot. He may not have appreciated getting pinned down on the rail for the short stretch drive in the Smarty Jones, and then last time he was very unlucky to lose the Southwest. That race was dominated by horses that made outside moves when the race was falling apart at the quarter pole, and Long Range Toddy got caught inside behind tiring runners. He lost valuable momentum and actually did extremely well to gather himself and get back into contention at the wire. I have little doubt that he would have won that race if he had been positioned outside in upper stretch. His speed figures are a little light compared to some others, but this colt is game and always seems to show up with a competitive effort. I certainly prefer him to Galilean, and he figures to be a much bigger price than both of the aforementioned alternatives. Adds value in exotics.
There are a couple of fringe players in this division: EASY SHOT (#4) closed for a minor award in the Robert B. Lewis last time, but that was among the weaker prep races that we have seen. His running style should ensure that he works out a favorable trip from off the pace, but he is likely not fast enough to land a serious blow. CLASSY JOHN (#7) should lead this field for a long way as he stretches out to the longest distance of his career. He earned some impressive TimeformUS Speed Figures in his first couple of starts around one turn, but he had trouble handling the stretch-out against inferior rivals at Delta Downs last time and would be hard-pressed to last against this classy bunch. The remaining horses in Division 1 are not likely to factor in the outcome.
The second division of the Rebel, which goes as the 10th race, features numerous confirmed front-running types. Horses such as Market King (#1), Parsimony (#3), Jersey Agenda (#4), and Omaha Beach (#6) have all been most successful when racing on or near the early lead. Furthermore, Our Braintrust (#7) is adding blinkers for the first time, which could incite him to show more speed than he has in his prior races.
The sheer volume of speed horses should not have a negative impact on favorite Game Winner (#5), who possesses a versatile running style. His Late Pace Rating of 84 is identical to that of Improbable’s, an indication that both of these horses are strong finishers regardless of running style. If they go too fast up front and a pace meltdown ensues, deep closer Gunmetal Gray (#7) should be picking up the pieces in the late stages.
Let’s sort out the main contenders in Division 2, starting with the 2018 Two Year Old Champion:
#5, GAME WINNER (4-5): He is everything you want in a Derby horse. He has no discernible weaknesses. This colt was fast enough to win his debut sprinting 6 furlongs at Del Mar, yet possessed the stamina to seamlessly transition to two-turn route races later in the fall while using a variety of running styles. He chased a moderate pace in the American Pharoah before taking over at the quarter pole, yet he rallied from well behind when winning the Del Mar Futurity and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Despite a slight dip in his speed figures, that most recent score was arguably his best effort to date. After sustaining a bump at the start, Game Winner found himself traveling in mid-pack, trying to catch up while racing wide around both turns. He covered far more ground than his two nearest pursuers in deep stretch, relentlessly rallying past Knicks Go after withstanding a hard bump from that rival in upper stretch. Surely that performance was stronger than the mediocre 114 TimeformUS Speed Figure indicates.
Game Winner remains a serious force to be reckoned with as he steps onto the Derby trail, yet there remains some doubt as to whether he is primed to put forth a top effort in his 3-year-old debut. This colt has never been the most enthusiastic work horse in his morning training, and that lack of flashy drills has led some to conclude that his highly regarded stablemate Improbable is more likely to win on Saturday. Perhaps that is true, but I have not seen any convincing evidence that Game Winner is going to take a backward step off his 2-year-old form. While not pertinent to today’s discussion, I do have a great deal of confidence that Game Winner will continue to improve as the distances increase. Candy Ride is a versatile sire and the stamina influences stemming from his A. P. Indy-sired dam are quite solid. This streamlined colt gives every impression that the Derby distance will be well within his ideal range. With all of that in mind, perhaps Bob Baffert does not have him fully cranked to win going into today’s trip, instead content to let him race into fitness. I do not believe this horse is quite as vulnerable as some are suggesting, but there is at least one rival in this field who could mount serious challenges. Deserves respect.
#6, OMAHA BEACH (7-2): If I were Bob Baffert, this is not the horse I would fear most. Omaha Beach is likely to be the second choice in the wagering, yet I feel that this well-bred colt still has much to prove. He did earn an eye-opening TimeformUS Speed Figure of 118 when he broke his maiden last time out, but I think it’s important to place that victory in context. Omaha Beach was sent off as the 3-5 favorite that day and absolutely dominated an overmatched field in the slop. While the early fractions appeared to be dazzling upon first viewing, the sealed main track at Santa Anita was playing extremely fast on Feb. 2, which contributed to the fast times. That pace is not color-coded red in TimeformUS PPs, indicating that the fractions Omaha Beach set were actually moderate relative to the final time. It’s notable that none of his prior speed figures makes him remotely competitive with this field. Furthermore, the Pace Projector indicates that there are other fast runners in this field, so it is not guaranteed that he will even be in front heading around the clubhouse turn. As a son of War Front, I would have preferred to see him finish off his two-turn races with greater energy. While he may be quite talented, I just have not yet seen the evidence that this colt possesses the stamina to make the transition into graded stakes company going a route of ground on the dirt. A likely underlay.
#7, OUR BRAINTRUST (6-1): This overachiever seems to be the forgotten horse in the Rebel. I find it curious that he’s dismissed at 6-1 on the morning line and is lightly regarded by many handicappers. That 121 TimeformUS Speed Figure that he earned for his third-place finish in the Withers is the highest in the field and is strong enough to win most of the Derby preps that we have seen so far in 2019. I realize that some horseplayers are skeptical of the surprisingly high numbers that the Withers received, but we have yet to see conclusive evidence that the number should be lower. Those pointing to Not That Brady’s last-place finish in the Gotham as a reason to disregard the Withers are making a mistake. That horse had physical issues heading into the race and melted down on track prior to the start. Of greater significance to me are the two runners who ran back in the Tampa Bay Derby last weekend. The Withers fourth-place finisher repeated his number in that race, and the fifth-place finisher returned to earn a speed figure that was two points higher.
Not only did Our Braintrust earn a massive speed figure in the Withers, he actually might have run the best race that day despite finishing third. The track at Aqueduct was starting to favor horses racing on the rail during the latter half of that Feb. 2 card before we observed a true inside bias on the following Sunday. Given that situation, Our Braintrust ran exceptionally well to lose by only a neck after chasing 2- to 3-wide throughout. His pedigree does not inspire confidence that he’s going to relish added ground, so this slight cutback to 1 1/16 miles can only help. Mark Casse has already sent a few live runners to take down stakes at this Oaklawn Park meet, and I could see Our Braintrust working out a favorable trip from a stalking position. If he merely repeats his last effort, Game Winner could have a real fight on his hands. The selection.
#8, GUNMETAL GRAY (10-1): I suppose it’s possible that they go so fast up front as to create the kind of pace meltdown that we’ve become accustomed to seeing in these prep races. Horses such as Harvey Wallbanger and Haikal were not necessarily the best horses in their wins in the Holy Bull and Gotham, but closing trips into extremely fast paces put them in the winner’s circle. Supporters of this gray colt will hope the same phenomenon occurs here, as his 105 Late Pace Rating stands out from the rest of the field. Yet I remain somewhat skeptical that this runner is good enough to claim the top prize. After all, a fast pace would also benefit Game Winner, and that rival has previously asserted his superiority. Gunmetal Gray has failed to step forward off his 2-year-old speed figures, and some would argue he has even regressed in 2019. In exotic wagers, I think he’s one that you want to include on the bottom rungs of exactas and trifectas, but I’ll be surprised if he can pass them all. Using underneath.
The remainder of the field would have to improve to unseat the aforementioned rivals. LAUGHING FOX (#2) merits some consideration on the basis of his impressive 115 TimeformUS Speed Figure, earned on the Southwest undercard. The fast pace of that optional-claiming race led to the relatively quick final time, and this colt certainly benefited from the dynamics of that race. Yet, he may be improving for Steve Asmussen and is worth a look when constructing trifecta and superfecta wagers. JERSEY AGENDA (#4) was cooked in the pace of the Southwest, which was a strangely run race that was dominated by closers. He has some ability, but it seems unlikely that he will encounter a more favorable scenario this time. The rest of the runners in this division are difficult to support.
In the first division of the Rebel, I’m not trying to beat likely winner Improbable (#9), who figures to be a heavy favorite. My strategy will be to play against Galilean in exactas and trifectas, instead using Extra Hope (#1) and Long Range Toddy (#2) and the second and third slots.
Exacta: 9 with 1,2
Trifecta: 9 with 1,2 with 1,2,4,7,8
In the second division of the Rebel, while I respect Game Winner’s (#5) talent, I’m taking a shot against him with Our Braintrust (#7), given that he is likely to be a massive overlay. I’m primarily focusing on this pair, and will use the rest to fill out the lower rungs of exotic wagers.
Exacta Key Box: 7 with 5,6,8
Trifecta: 5,7 with 5,7 with 2,4,6,8,10
Trifecta: 5,7 with 2,6,8 with 5,7