Kentucky Derby Prep School: is this a Bob Baffert benefit?

Game Winner’s victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November showed how well the colt stays. Photo: Kaz Ishida/Eclipse Sportswire/CSM/Breeders’ Cup

The cancellation of the G2 San Felipe due to the ongoing problems at Santa Anita has led to a surfeit of California-trained Triple Crown horses in need of a prep race. Oaklawn Park to the rescue!

Such has been the concentration of quality entries for Saturday’s G2 Rebel Stakes that the track has split the influential trial into two divisions, adding $500,000 to the original $1m purse to create two $750,000 races.

They ought to rename the Rebel temporarily as the Bob Baffert Benefit Stakes, for the great Californian trainer – currently world #2 in TRC Global Rankings – is running the two horses who are probably his best.

RACE: $750,000 G2 Rebel Stakes (Division 1)
TRACK: Oaklawn Park, Arkansas
DISTANCE: One mile, half a furlong
DESCRIPTION: Lead-up race to the G1 Arkansas Derby, April 13

Top choice: IMPROBABLE

Baffert has a solid record at Oaklawn – he won the G1 Arkansas Derby in 2012 with Bodemeister and in 2015 with Triple Crown hero American Pharoah – and there is a strong probability he will be adding to that this weekend. His first runner, Improbable, has drawn the outside post in nine-horse field, but that is not expected to cause fast-rising jockey Drayden Van Dyke (world #24) any problems, owing to the colt’s tactical speed. Indeed, it could be seen as an ideal pitch to get him to relax into the contest, given his free-going nature.

Improbable is a son of the late City Zip, a stallion we currently rank #66 overall who we had much higher; indeed, the G1-winning sprinter was world #7 for four weeks in July, 2016. City Zip himself is a son of the speed-influence Carson City, so there has to be a doubt over classic distances for Improbable, based off his pedigree.

Notably, however, Improbable was strong at the finish when winning the G1 Los Alamitos Futurity – Baffert’s 11th win in the race – in December. It’s true he can race a little keenly, but the style in which he powered five lengths clear of Much Gusto was very impressive. Improbable was maintaining his unbeaten record there after a maiden at Santa Anita in September and a minor stakes race at Churchill Downs in November.  

VALUE PICK: Galilean

It is not recommended that readers take a serious shot at Improbable, but any horse can be beaten and every horse has its price from a betting perspective. If Improbable slips, most likely Galilean will take advantage. This colt, trained by world #15 Jerry Hollendorfer, is thought to be on a par with the stable’s Instagrand, who ran well off a layoff last week when third to Value Pick Haikal in the G3 Gotham at Aqueduct and must not be written off.

Galilean – a son of former world #7 stallion Uncle Mo – has won three of his four starts, most recently the California Cup Derby at Santa Anita last month. But the interesting run, and the one that earns him the spot here, is his previous win at the same Los Alamitos venue at which Improbable scored.

Galilean clocked 1:35.06 for the dead mile – only a hair slower than Mucho Gusto’s equivalent clocking in the longer Futurity eight days earlier. It is dangerous – and often completely wrong – to make these comparisons, owing to track speed variation and different run-up distances, and better to make a more principled assessment using par times for each distance.

Equibase ( awarded speed figures of 111 to Galilean and 103 to Improbable, and even though other compilers disagree with this relation, it is enough to make Galilean the call here at bigger odds.


RACE: $750,000 G2 Rebel Stakes (Division 2)
TRACK: Oaklawn Park, Arkansas
DISTANCE: One mile, half a furlong
DESCRIPTION: Lead-up race to the G1 Arkansas Derby, April 13

Top choice: GAME WINNER

Here comes Baffert, again. There is no doubt whatsoever that his G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Game Winner is the most accomplished colt among the ten entries for Division 2 of this fascinating split race. His sire, Candy Ride, is our idea of the most powerful around based only on dirt races (we are soon to publish a dirt-only sires list) and we have him at #10 overall.

Game Winner bolstered his sire’s reputation and his own with that championship romp at Churchill Downs last November – his third G1 win after the Del Mar Futurity and the American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita. Given the rarity of such a hat-trick, he is already worthy of the reference ‘champion’.

What became clear in the Breeders’ Cup was how well Game Winner (who is out on an A.P. Indy mare) stays. He got pinched back a bit at the break and had to come from out of it, covering extra ground on the home turn and keeping on powerfully to lead inside the last. Ideally, he is a horse best allowed to stride on and control a race some way from the finish, as so many of his trainer’s horses are, but this underlined he has versatility, tenacity and, most of all, a ton of ability (he also ran a similar race at Del Mar).

To take his game to the absolute zenith, Game Winner is going to have to master breaking just a little bit sharper. Notwithstanding, he will be very difficult to beat here, even allowing for the disruption to his schedule caused by the San Felipe cancellation and his resulting shipping across country here.

VALUE PICK: Omaha Beach

If we are going to find a colt to upset Game Winner, it may well be a quicker one early. Enter Omaha Beach who owns a very different profile from the favourite – for more than one reason.

Omaha Beach has a profile that used to be seen a lot more often among top dirt horses. Trainer Dick Mandella has conditioned him to improve with racing, so, in contrast to Game Winner’s precocious record, he lost four times in maidens before an amazing nine-length blitz at Santa Anita last month.

A son of #32 War Front – responsible for G2 Risen Star winner War Of Will – Omaha Beach ran seven furlongs in 1:21.02 when winning last time, chasing a 21.75 pace which, even allowing for the average split-times recorded at the beleaguered California venue, is a significant number.

Omaha Beach ran into another good horse in Nolo Contesto when he was beaten in a one-mile contest on his penultimate start, when he dug in really well and pulled well clear of the rest. If he can slip Game Winner early, he has a chance.

Previously in this series

Who might have learned enough to shine in the Risen Star?
Hidden Scroll must show he’s up to it between the ears
Can Instagrand repay some welcome independent thinking?

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