03/15/2015 10:42AM

Road to the Derby analysis: Rebel Stakes

Coady Photography
American Pharoah wins the Rebel Stakes by 6 1/4 lengths Saturday at Oaklawn Park.

Grade 2, $750,000 Rebel Stakes, 1 1/16 miles, Oaklawn Park, March 14, 2015
(50 Derby qualifying points for a win, 20 for second, 10 for third, 5 for fourth)

Winner: American Pharoah
Trainer: Bob Baffert
Jockey: Victor Espinoza
Owner: Zayat Stables LLC
Beyer Speed Figure: 100

AMERICAN PHAROAH, last year’s champion 2-year-old male, made a splashy return, both literally and figuratively, in his 3-year-old debut. This was his first start since winning the Grade 1 FrontRunner at Santa Anita on Sept. 27. He would have been favored in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile but was injured the week of that race and did not go back into serious training until two months later.

He came into the Rebel having crammed six workouts into just 33 days. He had to ship out of town. And he was presented with a sloppy, sealed track, the first time he had raced on an off track.

Then, just to make things more interesting, he stumbled slightly leaving the gate, enough to cause his right front shoe to become askew for the running of the race. Despite all that, he cruised to an effortless victory, winning by 6 1/4 lengths while never being asked for his best.

Nitpickers will point out that the field was inferior to what American Pharoah will face going forward and that he had no pace rivals. Both are true. But there is no way he was at his absolute best for this. He has been under a tight schedule, has made every deadline so far, and figures to move forward now that he’s gotten this crucial first race out of the way.

:: ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays

He most likely will head back to Oaklawn for the Arkansas Derby on April 11 for several reasons – trainer Bob Baffert has Dortmund for the Santa Anita Derby on April 4, the Zayat family has El Kabeir for the Wood Memorial on April 4, American Pharoah probably would benefit from having four weeks into his next race rather than three, and he proved he likes Oaklawn.

As for the race itself, American Pharoah made the top despite his awkward start, cantered along on the front end with his ears forward as if cruising through a morning drill, then accelerated through the lane and drew away impressively without ever feeling jockey Victor Espinoza’s whip.

MADEFROMLUCKY, who finished second, sat on the rail while following American Pharoah around the first turn and down the backstretch, stayed on the rail the rest of the way and, though no match for the winner, was 2 1/2 lengths better than anyone else.

BOLD CONQUEST, who finished third, pulled some of the same shenanigans he did in his prior start, the Southwest. He again lugged out around the first turn, though he also appeared to be avoiding clipping heels with PAID ADMISSION. That put him in the three path the rest of the way. He was even with Madefromlucky in upper stretch, but as in the Southwest, he was on his wrong lead much of the way down the lane. Perhaps the off tracks he has encountered are hampering him, but he has some maturing to do.

THE  TRUTH OR ELSE, who was fourth, was near the back early while hugging the rail, moved forward along the inside down the backstretch, remained on the rail behind traffic while appearing to have some run, but went evenly when switched out for the stretch drive.

Paid Admission finished fifth after stalking the early pace of American Pharoah. He started to come under a ride with about three furlongs remaining while between Madefromlucky and Bold Conquest and retreated.

SAKIMA, who finished sixth, was three paths wide entering the first turn and had to exercise caution when Bold Conquest came out. He remained three lanes wide the rest of the way and simply was outrun despite aggressive handling from his rider the final three furlongs.

TIZWONDERFULCREEK finished last of seven. He hopped at the start, was at the rear of the pack inside Sakima around the first turn and into the backstretch, was out-footed on the far turn, remained on his wrong lead in upper stretch, and faded.