Hall of Fame trainers Bob Baffert, Steve Asmussen, and D. Wayne Lukas, as well as future Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, have accounted for 12 total wins in the Rebel (G2) at Oaklawn Park, this weekend’s most significant Kentucky Derby (G1) prep. Baffert alone is responsible for six, all since 2010. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Saturday’s renewal of the $900,000, 1 1/16-mile heat goes through that imposing quartet, who might have as many as seven of the Rebel entrants.
Winners of the Rebel, since 1980, have had a serious impact on the Triple Crown, three-year-old championship race, and even beyond. In chronological order, its most noted winners include Temperence Hill, Sunny’s Halo, Vanlandingham, Pine Bluff, Victory Gallop, Smarty Jones, Lawyer Ron, Curlin, Lookin at Lucky, Will Take Charge, and American Pharoah.
Here are four questions that will hopefully be answered when the horses cross the Rebel finish line.
1. Will Solomini give Baffert a third major Derby player? McKinzie and the late-developing Justify have both run twice this year and are all the rage following their performances last weekend at Santa Anita. Now it’s Solomini’s turn to show how much he’s advanced from a respectable juvenile campaign. The likely Rebel favorite, he was no match for Bolt d’Oro in the FrontRunner nor Good Magic in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), but gradually overtook McKinzie and Instilled Regard in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) before his demotion to third due to interference. Flattered by both rivals subsequently, this son of Curlin has to prove he can win a big one and keep it.
2. Can Combatant finally break through? Unlucky so far like Solomini but at lower levels, the Asmussen-trained Combatant has settled for second in each of his past three Derby preps. He was at a pace disadvantage against the late Mourinho in the Smarty Jones two back, and last time in the Southwest (G3) was no match for turf mainstay My Boy Jack, who skimmed the rail to victory over a muddy track. He probably needs to win here to be considered a serious Kentucky Derby candidate rather than fodder for trifecta and superfecta wagers on the first Saturday in May.
3. Will Sporting Chance take a step forward and avoid erratic behavior? The D. Wayne Lukas trainee nearly gave away last summer’s Hopeful (G1) after ducking out near the finish. In his return race in the Southwest (G3), his two-turn debut and one many felt he was going to need following a 5 1/2-month layoff, the colt appeared intimidated more than interfered with as Combatant bore in a bit while passing him by a furlong from home. That made Sporting Chance lose momentum briefly before he re-rallied to get third late. A higher level of maturity on the track is to be hoped for at minimum. By Tiznow and out of a multiple Grade 1-placed stakes winner by Candy Ride, he’s bred to do well going long. However, with only two Derby qualifying points to his name for now, he can not afford a major misstep or a dull outing.
4. How will the stakes newcomers fare? By far the most scrutinized of the stakes newcomers in the Rebel will be the Todd Pletcher-trained Magnum Moon, an individual entry (25-1) in last week’s third Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool and two-for-two since debuting at Gulfstream on January 13. “The Curse of Apollo” applies to him as much as Justify long term, but keep in mind Pletcher won the Rebel last year with Malagacy, who also debuted in January and was winning this race in only his third lifetime start. This field is seemingly deeper, though.
Other newbies to watch for are Curlin’s Honor, two-for-two in a pair of sprints for Mark Casse, and Higher Power, a half-brother to Oaklawn H. (G2) winner Alternation who got a terrific education overcoming tight quarters to win a two-turn allowance earlier in the meet. He missed the Southwest due to illness, but could be a nice one for owner-breeder Pin Oak and trainer Donnie Von Hemel.
Follow the TwinSpires accounts on Twitter (@TwinSpires) and Facebook for live on-site coverage of racing at Oaklawn on Friday and for Saturday’s Rebel card. You can also check out my personal Twitter account (@VPHanson) for some additional sights and sounds from the weekend in Hot Springs.