03/16/2014 1:09PM

Rebel, and Other Thoughts


Some Triple Crown preps are easier to assess than others, but Saturday’s Rebel at Oaklawn is proving more difficult than most. Whether it was because of the sealed, wet-fast surface it was run over, or because of all the body checking in the stretch, drawing conclusions from this race is not easy, even with almost a day to think about it.

So, in lieu of that, let’s ask and answer one question for each for the four who turned out to be the Rebel’s main protagonists.

Does Hoppertunity’s half-length decision in the Rebel flatter the colts who soundly beat him last time out in the Risen Star?

Hoppertunity was brushed by Tapiture in upper stretch when that opponent came out desperately looking for racing room, but Hoppertunity still had a comparatively clean trip Saturday. It wasn’t much more eventful than the uneventful trip he had in the Risen Star, in which he was beaten seven lengths by Intense Holiday and Albano, and a little more than a length for third by Vicar’s in Trouble, who did have a tough trip. So I can see where some might think the Rebel result was a big boost to the stock of the Risen Star. But that line of thinking might be too simplistic, if not a mistake, because there was just so much else going on here.

Hoppertunity is by a son of Distorted Humor, out of an Unaccounted For mare, which is wet track breeding of the highest order. He might have moved way up on the footing he encountered Saturday. Hoppertunity might have also improved for the simple fact that he was making only his fourth career start. He was much closer early in the Rebel than he was in the Risen Star, and that could have been a key to his stronger effort. And then there is the incredible record by Bob Baffert, trainer of Hoppertunity, in graded stakes at Oaklawn (he is now 12 for 21 in such races there since 2010) versus an almost lack of a graded stakes record at Fair Grounds.

In other words, Hoppertunity’s Rebel and Risen Star probably shouldn’t be directly compared, making a literal reading of them taken together shaky ground on which to base key prep conclusions.

Does Tapiture’s narrowly beaten second in the Rebel after getting banged around between rivals for much of the stretch run bode well for how he will react in the crucible that is the Kentucky Derby?

Maybe. Tapiture ran away with the Southwest last month in his vastly improved 3-year-old debut, so it was encouraging to see him give almost as good as he got Saturday when the going got rough. But there will be more than twice as many horses in the Derby as there were in the Rebel, and many of them will be better opponents than he faced Saturday.

Ride On Curlin had as good a wet track pedigree in the Rebel than anyone, and he won his only previous wet track start in his first start of the year. Was his much more competitive third place finish purely a function of the racing surface?

I don’t think so. For different reasons (moving ridiculously early being chief among them), Ride On Curlin had as much of a trip when a distant third in the Southwest as the much ballyhooed (and terribly overblown) trip Strong Mandate had when second in that race. Ride On Curlin might indeed like a wet track, but he also has talent. His third in the Champagne last fall on a fast track, beaten less than two lengths, was a very decent effort.

Did Strong Mandate have enough trouble finishing fourth in the Rebel for his fans to stay the course, or is it time to downgrade him?

A downgrade might be in order.

Then again, the expectations for Strong Mandate going into the Rebel might have been too high, with too much made of the trip he had when second in the Southwest. Yes, Strong Mandate was bumped on the first turn in that race, but people who made a big deal over how wide he raced are overlooking the face that Southwest day was one of those days that happen with some frequency at Oaklawn when the rail was dead (notably, Tapiture was closest to the rail for a good part of the Southwest), and the wider you were, the better.

Strong Mandate went to the lead Saturday, which is probably his most effective running style, and set a comfortable pace. And he took no more the worst of it in the stretch than Tapiture did. Strong Mandate simply wasn’t good enough.

While on the subject of 3-year-olds, a belated word about that big allowance race at Gulfstream last Wednesday in which Social Inclusion crushed Remsen winner Honor Code. Social Inclusion obviously has lots of talent as he has now won both of his starts in blowout fashion. But he capitalized on a speed bias when he won his debut at Gulfstream, and shook well clear early last Wednesday with an easy opening quarter of 24.32. If he encounters other legitimate speed in his next start, it will be a first for him, and I’ll be playing against.

As for Honor Code, yeah, he probably needed the race, and the pace set up was unfavorable for his late running style. I get all that. But he never, not once, mounted anything close to a serious move, and I found that very disappointing.

Other notes:

Congratulations to Let Faith Arise for getting that all-important Grade 1 score, a huge deal for a future broodmare prospect, in the Santa Margarita. But that whole older female group at Santa Anita is underwhelming.

Centre Court was gutsy winning the Honey Fox at Gulfstream off a seven-month layoff, and despite breaking through the gate before the start. And Kitten’s Point was very good in being beaten just a nose. But Tapicat’s effort, after the kind of rail trip you can only dream about, was dismal.

Not sure what to make of Golden Lad’s romp in the Razorback on the Rebel undercard. Maybe he loved the off track and others hated it, or maybe he’s just greatly improved. I only know the horses he beat in wins in his three prior outings at Gulfstream aren’t especially intimidating.

I loved Joel Rosario’s ride on Close Hatches in Oaklawn’s Azeri, sending a filly who had morphed into a stalker/closer right to the front in a race that lacked a lot of pace. It was perfectly aggressive, and an example why New Yorkers fell for Rosario when he shifted his tack east.