For the weekend racing picks today we’re travelling to Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas for the Rebel Stakes for 3-year-olds going 1 1/16th miles. The Rebel is traditionally the prep for Oaklawn’s main Kentucky Derby springboard – the Arkansas Derby. This year’s version of the Rebel drew so many entrants that they will be running split divisions of the same race. Let’s get started:
Oaklawn Park – Race 7 – The Azeri (Grade 2) (22:21 GMT/ 17:21 ET)
This year’s running of the Azeri has a compact but competitive field set to take the starting gate on Saturday afternoon led by Midnight Bisou – the 6-5 morning line favorite. Midnight Bisou was last seen winning at Sam Houston Racetrack in January. Prior to that she was eventual Breeder’s Cup Distaff winner – Monomoy Girl’s personal punching bag after losing 3 of 4 to that rival.
Elate is the 8-5 second choice on the morning line and is one of only two 5-year-olds in the race. Elate hasn’t been seen since last August when she just missed a decision to Abel Tasman at Saratoga. Trainer Bill Mott is fresh off a victory in last weekend’s Tampa Bay Derby and I think his hot hand continues here with Elate. She’s been working well and has spent the better part of her career facing better quality horses.
Oaklawn Park – Race 8 – The Rebel (First Division) (Grade 2) (22:57 GMT / 17:57 ET)
The first division of The Rebel drew 9 entrants led by the Bob Baffert trained Improbable. Improbable is undefeated in three starts and is the 3-5 morning line favorite here and will probably win. Trainer Bob Baffert has had a strangle-hold on these Arkansas Derby preps for many years now and word is Improbable has been training well since winning the Los Alamitos Futurity in December. Improbable owns tactical speed in a race that appears on paper like it’s chock-full of front-runners. Not much value here.
Oaklawn Park – Race 9 – The Essex Handicap (23:29 GMT / 18:29 ET)
The Essex Handicap is the local prep race for the Oaklawn Handicap and drew an evenly matched field of 9 horses led by Giant Expectations (5-2) who ships in from California for trainer Peter Eurton. Giant Expectations owns nice tactical speed and with his main three rivals: Sonneteer, Hence and Rated R Superstar all closing from the clouds, I’m going to take a chance with Nanoosh to upset the race at what will likely be higher than his 20-1 morning line odds.
Nanoosh has won 4 of 8 career starts and put together back-to-back wins late last year at Turf Paradise and Zia Park where he earned high speed figures. His first race back looks ugly at first glance (he finished 11th of 14) but that race was dominated by front-end speed and he wilted in the lane only losing by 7 ¾ lengths. Trainer Robertino Diodoro has a 26% win percentage second off a layoff and is winning stakes at a 20% clip. He’s got a strong 19% win percentage at this current meet and will face far less pace pressure than he did in his previous start.
Oaklawn Park – Race 10 – The Rebel (Second Division) (Grade 2) (00:06 GMT / 19:06 ET)
A different division of the same race with the same outcome expected in part 2 of The Rebel. This time, Bob Baffert trained Game Winner is the 4-5 morning line favorite and looks like the likeliest winner. Like his stablemate Improbable, Game Winner is also undefeated and unchallenged most recently winning the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile by 2 ¼ lengths in November.
This race’s value may lie in exotic betting as I think Gunmetal Gray is likeliest to run 2nd of the remaining horses and his morning line is a juicy 10-1. Gunmetal Gray has the kind of closing kick we haven’t seen much of in these early 3-year-old Kentucky Derby prep races as most of them want to run on the front end.
I like longshot Market King at 30-1 to round out what could be a nice trifecta despite a 4-5 winning the race. Market King hails from the barn of D. Wayne Lukas and he’s no stranger to winning Kentucky Derby prep races. He enlists top rider John Velazquez to ride and my guess is he’ll be on the engine from the start.