Races from Oaklawn Park and Gulfstream Park
We've all watched them, often on the same day, but they've always been at different tracks. Have you ever wondered what it would it would be like to see two first-rate Kentucky Derby prep races in one day, run an hour apart at the same track?
Well, never wondered that either, but due to the bizarre and distressing situation at Santa Anita, which is rapidly developing into something between a tragedy and a farce, we're getting that today: the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes, which has long been a favored prep race for the Kentucky Derby, has been split into two divisions, mostly to accommodate refugees from the Southern California circuit. Both are restricted to 3-year-olds, and both will be run at a mile and a sixteenth on Oaklawn's main track.
Arcadia's loss really is Hot Springs' gain, for running in these races are the top two contenders on just about everyone's Kentucky Derby list: last year's two-year old champion and winner of the Breeders Cup Juvenile, Game Winner; and Improbable, who missed the Breeders Cup but scored an eye-popping victory in the Los Alamitos Futurity. Both are trained by Bob Baffert, both are undefeated, and both make their 2019 debut today. Each division of the Grade 2 Rebel is a very good race, and joining them on the national stakes slate today are the Grade 2 Azeri, also at Oaklawn, which features super filly Midnight Bisou and super mare Elate, and the Grade 2 Inside Information Stakes from Gulfstream Park. We'll look at all of them, plus we'll throw in a quick look at an overnight stakes from Oaklawn, the $350,000 Essex Handicap. Let's go.
The first division of the Rebel goes off as Race 8 at Oaklawn Park. Post time is 5:57 pm Eastern. A field of nine will go to the post, with Improbable on the outside. Because he's the horse with the best credentials, and because he's the 3/5 morning-line favorite, the analysis of the race must go through him.
Improbable is undefeated in three career starts. He broke his maiden at Santa Anita in September, then won a stakes on the Breeders Cup undercard at Churchill Downs in November, and then he won the Los Al Futurity by five lengths on December 8. His pattern is exactly what you want to see from a horse preparing for the Kentucky Derby: every race is longer than the last one, and in every race, he has run faster than he ran the race before. Let us be blunt here: if he improves today off his score at Los Al, the rest of the field is running for second money. He looks to be that good.
We spent more time than is healthy trying to find ways that Improbable might lose today . The outside post in a two-turn race like this is one; a potential pace scenario that works against him is another. We even tried putting them both together: maybe, breaking from the 9 hole, jockey Jeremy Van Dyke has to gun him to the front to avoid getting hung wide on the first turn, and that causes him to go too fast early, and the post plus the pace leave him out of gas in the stretch.
In the end, no matter how hard we tried, we couldn't do it: Improbable just looks too good. He doesn't even have to run his best race, we think, to score here. We believe he will win. We cannot make him a pick, as we do not tout win bets on horses we think will be 1/5, but we can't pick against him either. If one wants to make a flyer bet on this race, we would recommend 7-Classy John: We think he will have the lead, and it should be a comfortable lead, as the race on paper does not look to have a lot of runners in it with high front-end speed. Maybe Classy John can get away and go wire to wire, and his 15-1 price is enticing. But if you bet him, make sure to bet him to place as well as to win, because we think that there is nothing improbable about the fact that Improbable is going to end up in the winner's circle.
The second division of the Rebel goes off as Race 10; post time is 7:06 Eastern. Game Winner is the 4/5 favorite, and a cursory glance at the past performances shows why: he's run four times, he's won four times, and three of those wins were in Grade 1 races: the Del Mar Futurity, the American Pharoah, and the Breeders Cup Juvenile.
But we are not as sold on Game Winner's merits as we are on the merits of his stable mate, Improbable. Yes, Game Winner is undefeated, but the field he beat at the Breeders Cup was a weak one, whose runners have so far not distinguished themselves. Runner-up Knicks Go was last seen running an embarrassing 7th in the Gotham at Aqueduct last week.
Moreover, while Game Winner's speed figures have been good, they may be suggesting that he's already run his fastest race; they may be suggesting that he's already hit his ceiling. 3-year-olds this time of year are like teenagers, and we think there's at least a passable chance that Game Winner is going to end up like the kid who was an all-world basketball player in 8th grade, but by high school sits on the end of the bench, because all the other kids have caught and even passed him.
Throwing out Game Winner requires us to take a hard look a the rest of the 10-horse field. Market King, Parsimony, and Kaziranga are automatic and easy throw-outs; none of them is anywhere near fast enough to win. Nor do we like Laughing Fox, Jersey Agenda, Gunmetal Gray, or Captain Von Trapp: a win by any of these horses would not be a total shock, but none of them look good enough for us to bet them to win.
Omaha Beach is a horse that a lot of wise guys are picking, and while we love his trainer, Hall of Famer Richard Mandella -- he's one of racing's truly good guys -- and his breeding suggests he should improve the longer the races get, we cannot get worked up over a horse whose only competitive speed figure was earned in a 7-furlong maiden race in the slop. We'll pass on Omaha Beach.
We like 7-Our Braintrust. We like him a lot. His last race, a third in the Withers at Aqueduct, looks good on paper -- he earned a 95 Beyer Speed Figure -- but it was even better than the fig suggests. He was wide around the first turn, which required him to run farther than the horses on the rail, but even more important than the distance lost was the track: he was outside on a day when the rail was good. Even after his wide trip, he still looked like a winner at the top of the stretch, but he was bumped, lost momentum, and fell short by a neck to a horse, Tax, who had the perfect trip: he rode the rail all the way around the Big A that day.
We think Our Braintrust is even better than his speed figure suggests, and that makes him a solid win play today. We will bet him to win at 6-1, and we will key him on top of some exotics as well, with Omaha Beach (#6) and Game Winner (#5) underneath: we don't think either horse will win, but we think that one or both is very likely to hit the board. The bets, all on Oaklawn Park, Race 10: $25 to win on 7-Our Braintrust. $.10 Superfecta , #7 with 5, 6 with ALL with ALL $.10 Superfecta , #7 with ALL with 5, 6 with ALL $.10 Superfecta, #7 with ALL with ALL with 5. 6
By structuring the superfecta tickets this way, we guarantee that we will hit the bet if Our Braintrust wins, and if either Game Winner or Omaha Beach finish 2nd, 3rd, or 4th. Each of these ten-cent tickets will cost $11.20 ,for a total Superfecta investment of $33.60.
The Azeri goes off as Race 7 at Oaklawn, with a post time of 5:21 pm Eastern. This is older females going a mile and a sixteenth on dirt. The race drew only six entrants, but they include Midnight Bisou and Elate, who two of the top older female dirt runners in the country. We think the race comes down to these two; a minor placing seems to be the ceiling for the other four. We prefer Elate: she's coming in off a layoff (her last race was in September), but trainer Bill Mott will have her ready to fire. We think the race comes down to Elate and Midnight Bisou throwing it down the length of the stretch -- it could be a thriller -- and we think that in the end, Elate will get the nod. We'll bet her to win at 8/5. The bet: Oaklawn Park Race 7, $20 to win on 5-Elate.
The Essex Handicap is sandwiched between the two divisions of the Rebel; it goes off as Race 9, and goes to post at 6:29 pm Eastern. It's for older males, and, like the other stakes in Hot Springs today, is a mile and a sixteenth on dirt. A good field of nine runners is entered.
There is a lot of speed in this race, and we think that sets up the race for a closer, and we have found one that will be a giant price: it's 4-Nanoosh. This 4-year-old colt ran a dud last time in the Razorback at Oaklawn, but we think it was because he was too close to a very hot early pace (and he was also coming off a layoff). In his prior starts, he was much more effective rallying from off the pace. We think he will revert to form today, and we think the shape of the race will suit that come-from-behind style very well. We will bet him to win at 20-1 -- and his odds at post time might be even higher. The bet: Oaklawn Park Race 9, $20 to win on 4-Nanoosh.
Finally, we'll turn to the only graded stakes race in the country that will be run outside Arkansas, the Grade 2 Inside Information from Gulfstream. This is a 7 furlong dirt sprint for older females. It goes as Race 11 in South Florida, and post time is 5:37 pm Eastern. We like 4-Cairenn, in here. This is 5-year-old mare is coming off a layoff, but she is a dedicated sprinter, which is not the case for some of the other runners, who look like they want longer races. With the race looking to have a legitimate early pace, we think her stalking style is a good fit, and we will bet her to win at 8-1. The bet: Gulfstream Park, Race 11, $15 to win on 4-Caierenn.
That's it for today. Enjoy the racing today. And good luck at the windows.