Edited Release – With seven weeks remaining until the first Saturday in May, the action is heating up in the Road to the Kentucky Derby Championship Series. On Saturday, Gary and Mary West’s undefeated Concert Tour will clash with Shortleaf Stable’s dazzling Smarty Jones (GIII) winner Caddo River in the $1 million Rebel (Grade II) at Oaklawn Park.
The 1 1/16-mile Rebel is the 11th race on Oaklawn’s 12-race program with a post time of 6:16 p.m. (all times Eastern). Fans can watch the Rebel on “America’s Day at the Races” on Fox Sports 2. The race awards the Top 4 finishers points on a 50-20-10-5 scale for the $3 million Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve (GI).
Concert Tour, trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, easily defeated four rivals on debut at Santa Anita by 3 ½ lengths under Joel Rosario. Baffert then stepped Concert Tour up to stakes company in the $200,000 San Vicente (GII) where he fought hard down the stretch for a half-length score over stablemate Freedom Fighter. Saturday’s Rebel will be Concert Tour’s first start at two-turns. However, this is a familiar pattern for Baffert who won last year’s San Vicente with Nadal prior to his Rebel victory.
Rosario ships to Oaklawn from Southern California to ride Concert Tour from post No. 7.
One of the top competitors to Concert Tour in the Rebel is dominating 10 ¼-length Smarty Jones winner Caddo River. Conditioned by Brad Cox, Caddo River was based at Oaklawn for much of the winter but when inclement weather hit Hot Springs, Ark. in early February, the colt was shifted to Cox’s Fair Grounds string and did not miss any training.
Florent Geroux has the mount from the rail.
Other entrants in the Rebel include Cypress Creek, Arnold Bennewith and Spendthrift Farm’s $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club (GII) winner Keepmeinmind and Gary Barber’s $300,000 American Pharoah (GI) winner Get Her Number.
The complete field for the Rebel from the rail out (with jockey, trainer and morning line odds): Caddo River (Geroux, Cox, 9-5); Big Lake (Ricardo Santana Jr., Steve Asmussen, 12-1); Hozier (Martin Garcia, Baffert, 12-1); Get Her Number (Javier Castellano, Peter Miller, 8-1); Twilight Blue (Brian Hernandez Jr., Joe Sharp, 15-1); Keepmeinmind (David Cohen, Robertino Diodoro, 4-1); Concert Tour (Rosario, Baffert, 2-1); and Super Stock (Joe Talamo, Asmussen, 6-1).
After this weekend’s action, the Road to the Kentucky Derby Championship Series will continue March 20 with the $1 million Louisiana Derby (GII) at Fair Grounds.
The 1 3/16-mile race is expected to be headlined by Juddmonte Farm’s $400,000 Risen Star (GII) winner Mandaloun. Trained by Brad Cox, the three-time winner suffered his only defeat in the $200,000 Lecomte (GIII) on Jan. 16. Following that race, Cox added blinkers to the Into Mischief colt and it proved successful with his 1 ¼-length score in the Risen Star.
The Louisiana Derby is also expected to include the second and third place finishers of the Risen Star: Godolphin’s Proxy and Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Midnight Bourbon.
Entries for the Louisiana Derby will take place on Saturday.
#1 Caddo River: “In the Smarty Jones he was very nice and relaxed. It was good seeing him win that race in that type of way. He was doing it the right way.” – jockey Florent Geroux
#3 Hozier: “I would’ve preferred an allowance race for him, but we just couldn’t get them to fill out here (in California). It’s tough. So, I thought, ‘Well, he’s doing good and maybe like Spielberg he’ll get a little piece of it or something.’ If things go crazy on the front end, you never know.” – trainer Bob Baffert
#7 Concert Tour: “The timing is right with this horse. He’s sort of on the same path as Nadal. It’s all about timing. The race happened to come up perfect timing for him. So, we’ll stretch him out. We’re getting close now. I just want to see a good effort out of him, see how he’s going to ship, how he’s going to handle the ship, then shipping to run against some really nice horses. This is where they start to see if you’re fit or not on the Road to the Derby.” – trainer Bob Baffert
DEBUT WINNER PREVALENCE TESTS ALLOWANCE COMPANY THURSDAY AT GULFSTREAM – Godolphin’s 8 ½-length debut winner Prevalence is the 4-5 morning line favorite in a compact field of six 3-year-olds in a one-turn allowance event Thursday at Gulfstream Park.
Trained by Brendan Walsh, Prevalence was targeting the Feb. 27 Fountain of Youth (GII) but was forced to reroute his plans after a minor fever caused him to miss a workout. Walsh stated several Road to the Kentucky Derby Championship Series races could be on the table should Prevalence win Thursday’s race.
The first-level allowance is carded as Race 8 with a scheduled post time of 4:44 p.m.
CHURCHILL DOWNS STABLE AREA OPENS TUESDAY – In an annual sign that spring is just around the corner, the Churchill Downs barn area will reopen Tuesday following its annual winter closure for renovations.
One of the first scheduled arrivals is a load of horses from trainer Greg Foley’s stable in New Orleans.
The first day of training is scheduled for Friday, March 19.
SCULLY’S DERBY REPORT
LIFE IS GOOD MAKES SHORT WORK OF SAN FELIPE FIELD – With a front-running romp in Saturday’s San Felipe Stakes (GII) at Santa Anita, Life Is Good strengthened his hold upon Kentucky Derby favoritism. The Bob Baffert-trained colt will make his final prep race in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby (GI) on April 3.
The San Felipe was one of three qualifiers over the weekend, each offering 85 points toward a Kentucky Derby berth (50-20-10-5 scale).
Helium and Weyburn opened their 3-year-old seasons with respective upsets in the Tampa Bay Derby (GII) and Gotham Stakes (GIII). Neither was nominated to the Triple Crown by the Jan. 23 deadline, but connections paid a $6,000 late nominee fee.
After blitzing foes in his career debut sprinting last November, Life Is Good won the Sham (GIII) in early January by less than a length. The unbeaten sophomore cranked it up a notch in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe.
Breaking from post 1, Mike Smith wasn’t taking any chances as Life Is Good showed good speed from the break, sprinting clear by a couple of lengths on the first turn. The Into Mischief colt settled into a nice rhythm while cruising along down the backstretch.
Entering the stretch, Life Is Good drew off to win by eight lengths. He didn’t appear tired afterward, and registered a career-best 103 Brisnet Speed rating.
It was disconcerting to see his antics coming home, drifting out while widening his advantage in the stretch run. Smith said his mount was looking at the big TV screen in the infield, and Baffert wasn’t concerned, noting that his runner is still learning.
“He’s still green,” Baffert told the Santa Anita Press Office on Sunday. “Remember Authentic did all that weaving one race…they’re still babies. They’re still immature. The main thing is he came out of it really well. We saw a lot of raw talent yesterday.”
Before delivering Baffert a record-tying sixth Kentucky Derby win in early September, Authentic drifted in and out repeatedly when opening his 3-year-old season with a convincing tally in the Sham.
Life Is Good is quite the formidable presence in his division – bettors hammered him down to 2-1 favoritism in Pool 4 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager last weekend – but he hasn’t faced pressure yet.
Granted, he’s a threat to keep trouncing the competition on the front end with his speed. But there’s no guarantee Life Is Good will be able to dictate terms at Churchill Downs, especially if Caddo River and Drain the Clock perform well in upcoming preps.
Baffert will keep teaching his star pupil to relax in the mornings, and I wouldn’t put anything past Life Is Good at this stage of the game.
Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify proved tractable for Baffert. Last year, Nadal appeared to be all speed early in the season, but he tracked the pacesetter before rolling to an outstanding Arkansas Derby (GI) win in his career finale a few months later.
I thought Authentic was more one-dimensional, leading wire-to-wire in all five stakes wins, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI). His only losses came when he didn’t make the early lead in the Preakness and Santa Anita Derby.
Stablemate Medina Spirit, a rallying second in the Sham and wire-to-wire winner of the Jan. 30 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (GIII), lost ground on Life Is Good through the final furlongs, but he easily outfinished Dream Shake for second. Baffert said the Santa Anita Derby and Arkansas Derby would be options for the Florida-bred Protonico colt.
Dream Shake came up empty in the final sixteenth of a mile, but held to be a clear third in his second career start. He remains eligible to improve upon the initial stakes experience.
Tampa Bay Derby
Helium had never raced on dirt or at two turns. Last seen winning a seven-furlong stakes at Woodbine in mid-October, the Mark Casse-trained colt deserves credit for overcoming a ridiculously wide trip in the 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby.
When 3-1 second choice Hidden Stash drew alongside in midstretch, Helium kept finding more to win going away by nearly a length. He was overlooked at 15-1 odds.
The Kentucky-bred is from the first crop of turf star Ironicus. And turf always will be an option given his breeding. Casse noted Helium’s stamina, and the bay is out of a mare by 1995 Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch.
Considering how well he ran off the lengthy layoff, Helium appears likely to bypass another prep race. Training up to the Kentucky Derby off an eight-week layoff is an unconventional strategy, though.
And Helium must get significantly faster to challenge after netting only a 93 Speed rating.
Runner-up Hidden Stash will point to the Blue Grass Stakes (GII) at Keeneland on April 3.
Weyburn showed resolve winning the Gotham by a nose over a one-turn mile at Aqueduct. After chasing pacesetter Freedom Fighter, the Ontario-bred fought back to edge Crowded Trade, who appeared headed to victory after surging to the front in midstretch.
Bettors gave Weyburn little chance following a slow maiden special weight victory over a sloppy Aqueduct track in early December, dismissing him at 46-1. The Pioneerof the Nile colt looked much improved off the three-month layoff for Jimmy Jerkens, with his Speed ratings jumping 19 points to a 104.
I loved the grit he displayed along the inside in deep stretch, and Weyburn is bred to thrive over longer distances. But he hasn’t been two turns yet, and Jerkens didn’t sound keen on bringing him back four weeks later in the Wood Memorial (GII) four weeks later following such a taxing performance.
Weyburn may wind up targeting the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes on June 5 for his first Triple Crown appearance.
After winning his career debut on Jan. 28, Crowded Trade gave a fine account of himself in his first attempt against winners. He will head to the April 3 Wood Memorial for Chad Brown. Stablemate Highly Motivated didn’t enjoy a clean trip, bobbling at the break and being forced to check early along the backstretch, and closed ground belatedly for third as the odds-on favorite.
A convincing winner of the Nyquist Stakes at Keeneland last fall, Highly Motivated will look to improve upon his seasonal opener when trying two turns in the Blue Grass.
Saturday’s $1 million Rebel (GII) at Oaklawn Park is the lone qualifier this weekend, and top draws for the 1 1/16-mile race include Caddo River and Concert Tour. Baffert will try to win an eighth Rebel with the latter.
ROAD TO KENTUCKY OAKS CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES CONTINUES MARCH 20 WITH $400,000 FAIR GROUNDS OAKS (GII) –The Road to the Kentucky Oaks Championship Series continues Saturday, March 20 with the $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks (GII) featuring $300,000 Rachel Alexandra (GII) winner Clairiere.