03/19/2017 10:25AM

Watchmaker: Would a Kentucky Derby contender please impress me?

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The round of penultimate preps for the Kentucky Derby is over, for the most part. I suppose if you really, really wanted to, you could squeeze a race in between this Saturday’s Spiral or Sunday’s Sunland Derby and the Kentucky Derby, but that would require more racing in a short period of time than many of today’s horsemen like.

So, as we turn into the final round of Derby preps, one could express surprise at how, at this relatively late stage, this Derby picture remains completely unsettled. Actually, one could say a lot worse if so inclined, but you get the idea.

We have a tepid Kentucky Derby favorite in McCraken, who is back working but who did miss his last race and will have one less prep than planned. We have Classic Empire, the unanimous 2-year-old male champion and one time clear future book favorite for the Derby. He’s back working, too, but his prep season has been a mess, and who knows if he’ll feel like cooperating, as he is also a notorious bad boy. And we have a bunch of Derby prep winners who enjoyed perfect trips or perfect pace setups, or both, and no Derby prep winner who overcame so much as a straw in his path.

It is in this context that this past Saturday’s Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn was run. And if you think, like me, that the Rebel was a disappointment, what you’re really saying when you consider context is that the Rebel was a huge letdown.

Look, Malagacy won the Rebel to remain unbeaten after three starts. He won his first two career starts this year at Gulfstream sprinting by 10 and seven lengths over questionable company, and Saturday he stretched out to 1 1/16 miles and two turns, and prevailed by two lengths.

Don’t, however, take that as proof that Malagacy is now a legitimate two-turn horse. If you thought Malagacy was a sprinter before the Rebel, there is ample reason after the Rebel to think that is exactly what he still is.

For one, Malagacy’s final time of 1:43.00 was good for a preliminary Beyer Figure of only 91. You don’t need me or anyone else to tell you how weak that number is, but that makes Malagacy’s Rebel tied for the second slowest of the 15 Derby preps run on dirt so far this year. (As an aside, three of the four races that bracketed the Rebel were also 1 1/16 mile races. So the fig, as low as it is, looks very straightforward.)

Malagacy fell off four Beyer points Saturday from his most recent sprint score, so the fact that he got slower as he went longer despite an easy trip stalking the pace strongly suggests that even if he did win, he doesn’t truly want distance, at least at this early stage of his career. And let’s not forget that the Rebel was at 1 1/16 miles. I’m surely daring him to prove me wrong, but it’s difficult envisioning Malagacy succeeding in a solid 1 1/8-mile race, let alone a 1 1/4-mile event.

Speaking of winning, whom did Malagacy beat? The fact that Sonneteer, who was still a maiden after eight attempts with a previous career-best Beyer of 77, finished second at 112-1 makes a flattering response to that question unlikely.

The “performance,” if you will, of some of those who finished behind Malagacy had a concerning ripple effect. For example, Untrapped had a perfect trip and had every chance in the stretch to catch Malagacy, but in the end he couldn’t even save the place from the maiden. Untrapped was previously second in Girvin’s Risen Star, so the strength of that race now comes into question.

Petrov, second in Oaklawn’s two previous Derby preps, finally got the stalking trip I’ve been looking for from him, but he was unable to capitalize and finished fourth. And I could see where some could claim how that takes a little of the sheen off One Liner’s victory over Petrov in the Southwest.

Royal Mo, winner of the Robert B. Lewis, and American Anthem, narrowly beaten in the Sham, both gave way to finish ninth and 10th in the field of 11, shaking the very foundation of the usually strong Southern California 3-year-old form.

Well, I should note that Sonneteer also shipped from California, so we know at least the maiden races there are good.

Bring on the final round of Kentucky Derby preps. We might not have a valid reason to expect something in them to really grab us, but we live in hope.

Quick Saturday notes:

** Mor Spirit was good winning Oaklawn’s Essex, and with the severe lack of quality depth in the handicap division he’s going to have lots of opportunities this year in some big-name and rich races.

** Vale Dori and Finest City put on a terrific show in the Santa Margarita at Santa Anita, turning it into a virtual match race. That said, they’re going to see a big change in the climate when Stellar Wind and, eventually, Songbird get back to business.

** When his career is over many years from now, Irad Ortiz Jr. will have a highlight reel 50 miles long. But his ride on Terra Promessa in Oaklawn’s Azeri will not be on it. Yet as brutal as Terra Promessa’s trip was, it was disappointing to see her have nothing at 1-5 once clear in the stretch. Yes, I know Terra Promessa probably called it a day after being in trouble for more than six furlongs. But man, the Azeri was run in slow motion, with a winning preliminary Beyer of only 85.