By Gene Kershner
Three races remain in the first leg of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, the top four finishers acquiring points on a 50-20-10-5 basis. At Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas on Saturday afternoon, the first of the final three races of this leg will be run in the $600,000 Grade 2 Rebel Stakes. This portion of the point schedule will conclude next weekend with the Sunland Derby at Sunland Park in New Mexico and the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park in Kentucky, outside of Cincinnati.
The Rebel features horses that will be sent to the gate by Hall of Fame trainers Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas and from likely future Hall of Famers Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen. Baffert and Lukas will both send out two horses in the 8 1/2-furlong race.
Baffert has been no less than sensational in the past in the Oaklawn Derby preps dominating with horses such as Lookin at Lucky, The Factor, Secret Circle and Bodemeister over the past three years. He continued that string last month when Super Ninety Nine crushed a Southwest Stakes field by over 11 lengths, earning 10 Derby points from the victory. Baffert has won the last three Rebels in a row and will be heavily favored to make it four. He's won 14 of his last 21 races in Hot Springs.
The Pulpit colt raced outside of California for the first time in the Southwest relishing the sloppy track in his first graded stakes victory. Super Ninety Nine drew the outside post (No. 11) and was assigned a highweight of 122 pounds. All horses racing in the Kentucky Derby carry 126 pounds.
His main competition will come from Lukas' trainee, Oxbow, who leaves Louisiana after winning the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes and finishing fourth in the wild finish in the Grade 2 Risen Star three weeks ago won by long shot Ive Struck a Nerve. Oxbow will break just inside Super Ninety Nine, both horses have flashed early speed in the past so the tactical moves early in the race from the outside pair will be interesting to watch. Lukas replaces Jon Court with Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, in to ride him for the first time.
Lukas will be looking for his second career Rebel victory, he finished second last year with Optimizer. He will also send out Will Take Charge, the Smarty Jones winner in January over the Oaklawn dirt. His protégé Todd Pletcher will send out Delhomme, not the quarterback, but the 3-year-old who will be making his 2013 Debut after a third place finish in the Remsen behind Overanalyze and Normandy Invasion. Garret Gomez will fly in to ride Delhomme for Pletcher.
One colt that is worth a second look is Title Contender, who was claimed from Baffert by Wayne Catalano after his last race. He appears to have struggled on the cushion track at Hollywood Park and didn't fire in the Juvenile last November at Santa Anita. If you go back to his maiden victory, he beat two quality horses in Code West and the Risen Star winner Ive Struck a Nerve. He was caught in the stretch by Carve, the Asmussen trainee who will be on the rail, in the race in which he was claimed at Oaklawn last month.
Baffert will also try Den's Legacy, a horse with a severe case of seconditis (10 starts; 2-5-1) who still lacks a win on the dirt, he has wins on the turf and the cushion track at Hollywood Park.
Baffert has owned this race for the past three years and it's hard to pick against him on Saturday. If you're trying to beat Super Ninety Nine my best bets would be Oxbow and Title Contender. Oxbow's had a nice progression of races on the dirt and could be sitting on a big effort. Title Contender has shown he can handle this class of contenders and will be a nice price at post time.
We're getting down to the nitty-gritty of the Derby trail and the final seven Championship Series prep races will present an opportunity at 100-40-20-10 points to the top four finishers, virtually guaranteeing the winners a spot and the second place finishers a high probability for qualifying for a Derby gate. The new system has certainly brought more focus to these races as the folks at Churchill Downs had hoped. We are seven weeks away from hearing "My Old Kentucky Home."