Oaklawn Park's status as a home away from home for Bob Baffert is newly acquired. Before the Hall of Fame trainer's decade of dominance in our Kentucky Derby prep races, the local track was known as a graveyard of favorites.
No Oaklawn race involving a 3-year-old proved more stunning than the 1998 Arkansas Derby, the first defeat of Favorite Trick's career. The first Horse of the Year at 2 since Secretariat and ridden by Pat Day, then at the peak of his powers, Favorite Trick was unusually rank in his second start at 3, chasing a hopeless longshot going a mile and an eighth.
"I knew we were in trouble the first time under the wire," trainer Bill Mott said after his colt finished third behind Victory Gallop (the subsequent Belmont Stakes winner) and Hanuman Highway.
Today's history-making Rebel, split into two divisions for the first time, features the 3-year-old debut of two Baffert-trained Grade 1 winners. Game Winner, in race 8, and Improbable, in race 10, loom as heavy favorites after shipping from California, Baffert's base, in midweek. Both have won outside California in brief careers, Game Winner sealing the 2-year-old championship in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs after Improbable won a stakes race earlier on the Nov. 2 card in Louisville.
Although neither has posted a 100 Beyer Speed Figure, it should be remembered that neither of Baffert's Triple Crown winners, American Pharoah and Justify, was brilliant against the clock. Both possessed a tremendous cruising speed that allowed them to run rivals into the ground, a trait that Baffert's current stars share. Game Winner's four victories have come by margins of at least 1 1/2 lengths while Improbable, after winning his debut by a neck, has paired stakes victories by a combined 12 1/4 lengths.
With Game Winner 4-5 and Improbable 3-5 on the morning line, neither is particularly bettable in the Rebel. But is either beatable?
Omaha Beach needed six races to break his maiden but that came by nine lengths last time at Santa Anita. A full brother to champion Take Charge Brandi trained by Hall of Famer Richard Mandella, Omaha Beach (by War Front) picked up Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith when regular rider Flavien Prat went with Gunmetal Gray, trained by Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer. Owner Rick Porter, who once raced frequently at Oaklawn, is recovering from cancer and would be a popular winner here and especially in May at Churchill Downs.
Consider Omaha Beach and Our Braintrust, a mutliple stakes winner now doing business for Mark Casse, as main threats to Game Winner. But Candy Ride's son is a deserving favorite off his professional performance in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, which he won by 2 1/4 lengths despite getting bumped at the start.
Like Justify (by Scat Daddy), Improbable is another Baffert-trained chestnut by a deceased sire (City Zip) and who makes it look easy. He should benefit from an outside post and roll to victory in the first division of the Rebel. Long Range Toddy ran big when third in the Southwest, when everyone's attention was distracted by Super Steed winning at 62-1. Galilean, Prat riding for Hollendorfer, could lead into the stretch.
Sandwiched around the Rebel is the $350,000 Essex Handicap with Giant Expectations looking to win outside California and Sonneteer shipping east to his favorite track. Take your pick among four Grade 1 winners in the Grade 2 $350,000 Azeri. Midnight Bisou, with more recent racing than two main rivals, is the one to beat.Sports on 03/16/2019
Print Headline: Baffert brings two more stars to Oaklawn