Southern California-based trainer John Sadler is not quite the frequent visitor to Oaklawn as fellow California trainer Bob Baffert, but when he does send a horse, they should be respected. He won the 2010 Arkansas Derby (G1) with 17-1 longshot Line of David and the following year he finished second in the Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) with Switch. He returns to Hot Springs Saturday with two horses and is excited about their chances.

Magic Union runs in the $200,000 Azeri Stakes (G2) for Hronis Racing and recent San Felipe Stakes (G2) winner Kobe’s Back looks to progress toward the Kentucky Derby with a strong effort in the $600,000 Rebel Stakes (G2).

“The colt is coming in off a big win where he ran very, very impressively,” said Sadler. “There’s been an awful lot of talk about him out here in California, but we decided to send him there and I like his chances.”

CRK Stable’s Kobe’s Back, who was named for NBA All-Star Kobe Bryant because owner Lee Searing is a big Los Angeles Lakers fan, won that seven-furlong test over Santa Anita’s dirt track on Feb. 16 in powerful fashion by 5 1/4 lengths. In his previous effort, he faltered badly to be 10th while winding up his 2-year-old season in the Cash Call Futurity (G1) at 1 1/16 mile over the artificial surface at Betfair Hollywood Park.

“In that race he got away from the gate slowly and then he stumbled badly,” explained Sadler. “Then he clipped heels so badly at the half-mile pole, he was almost pulled up. You can take that race and just put a line through it as far as I’m concerned.”

Kobe’s Back, who won the Willard Proctor Stakes in his maiden efforts, has trained brilliantly up to the Rebel, and on March 7 turned in a bullet six furlong-work of 1:11 handily at Santa Anita.

“That was a great work. It was scary-good,” said Sadler. “Obviously he can handle the dirt. We think he can handle the one-mile-and-a-sixteenth too.”

Kobe’s Back is the third choice in the early line at 7-2 and he breaks from the far outside under new rider Jose Lezcano in the field of eight 3-year-olds.

“There are some very good horses in there, but I also like our chances,” said Sadler. “Steve’s (Asmussen) horse (Tapiture, the 9-5 favorite) ran impressively in his last over that track (the Southwest Stakes) and deservedly should be the favorite. But, I’ll say it again. ‘We like our chances.’ We’ve got to get some (Kentucky) Derby (qualifying) points. That’s the idea and what we’re coming for.”

Magic Union, who arrived on the grounds with Kobe’s Back on Wednesday, will be coming home to some degree when she steps into the starting gate under Lezcano in the Azeri. She was stabled here with previous trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel.

“We bought her after her second race at Churchill Downs last year (June 13) and took her out to Del Mar,” Sadler said. “We tried her on the grass at Santa Anita and that didn’t work out too well and then we ran her on the artificial surface (at Betfair Hollywood Park and Golden Gate Fields).

Magic Union is the 20-l longest shot in the field in the morning line.

“I know there will be a prohibitive favorite (Close Hatches) and Don’t Tell Sophia is obviously very tough on her home track, but my filly is an awfully nice filly, too. I really expect her to run well,” Sadler said.

Gowan Riding Wave with Ride On Curlin

Ride on Curlin, who will line up in the gate for Saturday’s 1 1/16 mile $600,000 Rebel Stakes (G2), is taking trainer William Gowan on the ride of his life.

“I’ve never had a horse in the Kentucky Derby,” said Gowan, the former exercise rider and assistant to the legendary Jack Van Berg. “That would be amazing. It’s what all of us in this game are here for.”

Not only hasn’t he had that elusive Derby horse, Gowan has yet to win a graded stakes race. That can change when Ride on Curlin, third in the $300,000 Southwest Stakes here last out behind fellow Rebel runners Tapiture and Strong Mandate, takes them on again along with five other talented 3-year-olds.

“He went one lap around this morning,” said Gowan, who has a small string at Oaklawn and termed the son of Curlin out of the Storm Cat mare Magical Ride the best horse he’s ever had since going out on his own in 1994.
“Oh yeah, he’s ready. He’s and as good as he can be.”

Ride on Curlin, who is owned by Daniel Doughtery, got caught seven-wide in the full field of 12 around the turn in the Southwest but traffic may not be as much of an issue with the smaller Rebel field.

“I’ve seen them get in trouble in small fields, too,” he said. “But it’s alright. I’d rather have him in it than in his stall.”

Getting to race out of his stall rather than having to ship to an unfamiliar track may prove to work to the advantage of the colt, who was third behind the highly-regarded Havana and Honor Code last October in the Champagne Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park.

“I like that home field advantage,” said Gowan. “He likes the track here, so he should be in good shape. I think the pace should set up for him and he’ll be pretty close. I really don’t want him on the lead. He’s got tactical speed. The best race for him will be stalking and closing. The track’s been playing fair so now it’s going to be who’s the best horse tomorrow.”

If that horse is Ride On Curlin, he’ll earn 50 points under the Kentucky Derby qualifying system to add to the five he already has and catapult him to near the top of the standings, and there’s 20-10-5 points for second through fourth are also up for grabs.