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Aaron previews the 2023 Rebel Stakes (G2) from Oaklawn Park, then gives his top picks & long shots from this 2023 Kentucky Derby (G1) prep race. After finishing 2nd in the Springboard Mile Stakes last time out, the Brad Cox-trained Giant Mischief makes his seasonal debut against this jam-packed field. Tell us YOUR thoughts in the Comments section!
Trainer Brad Cox bids for his seventh victory in a 2022-2023 Kentucky Derby points race in the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) Saturday at Oaklawn.
The 1 1/16-mile Rebel anchors as 12-race program that begins at noon (Central). The card also features the $300,000 Honeybee Stakes (G3) for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/16 miles and the $150,000 Carousel Stakes for older fillies and mares at 6 furlongs. Probable post time for the Rebel, the 11th race, is 5:23 p.m. (Central). The infield, weather permitting, will be open for the first time this season.
The Rebel will offer 100 points (50-20-15-10-5, respectively) to the top five finishers toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Derby. The Rebel is the final major local prep for the $1.25 million Arkansas Derby (G1) April 1. The 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby is Oaklawn’s fourth and final Kentucky Derby points race.
The projected 11-horse Rebel field from the rail out:
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Cox, a two-time Eclipse Award winner (2020 and 2021) as the country’s outstanding trainer, is scheduled to send out the top two program choices, Verifying and Giant Mischief, in search of his first Rebel victory and fifth victory in Oaklawn’s last 11 Kentucky Derby points races.
Among Cox’s six victories in 2022-2023 Kentucky Derby points races is the $250,000 Smarty Jones Stakes at 1 mile Jan. 1 at Oaklawn with Victory Formation. Smarty Jones runner-up Angel of Empire returned to win a Kentucky Derby points race, the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (G2) at 1 1/8 miles, last Saturday at Fair Grounds. The week before, Cox struck in another 1 1/8-mile qualifying race, the $250,000 Withers Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct, with Oaklawn entry-level allowance winner Hit Show.
“Look, we’ve got a good group of horses,” Cox said. “We kind of knew that a year-and-a half ago when we went to the Keeneland yearling sale shopping. Think we selected a very good group of horses and we were fortunate to be sent a lot of good horses as well. Look, we’re in a good position. Fair Grounds and Oaklawn, between those two tracks, it gives us the opportunity to split some of these up and been able to send one up to New York as well. We’ll continue to go down those avenues and hopefully these horses can continue to develop throughout the winter and into the spring.”
Verifying, a half-brother to champion and multiple Oaklawn stakes winner Midnight Bisou, exits a powerful 5 ¼-length entry-level allowance victory at 1 mile Jan. 14 at Oaklawn in his 3-year-old debut. From the first crop of 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify, Verifying’s time of 1:37.23 was then a meet best and the race produced two next-out winners in Gun Pilot (second) and Two Eagles River (third).
“It looks like it was a key race,” Cox said. “Hopefully, he can move forward as well off that race. He certainly seems to have physically. He really seems to have developed over the last month or so. He’s doing good. Little bit of a tough post, but good horses overcome posts and I’m hopeful and think that he’s a good horse. So, we’ll see how it goes.”
A $775,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale purchase, Verifying has four published workouts at Fair Grounds since his allowance victory. He will be ridden for the first time by Ortiz, honored four times with an Eclipse Award as the country’s outstanding jockey.
Giant Mischief will be making his first start since finishing a troubled second in the $400,000 Remington Park Springboard Mile Stakes Dec. 17 at Remington Park. A son of Into Mischief, Giant Mischief has won 2 of 3 starts after being purchased for $475,000 at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale. Giant Mischief has worked five times this year at Fair Grounds in advance of the Rebel, which has been scheduled 3-year-old debut for two months.
“He’s really doing well,” Cox said. “Happy with how he’s training leading up (to the Rebel). I thought he ran a winning race last time. I’m hopeful and confident that he’ll be able to get out of the gate and get himself a good position and he can handle the mile and a sixteenth.”
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Lightly raced Gun Pilot (2 for 3) makes his stakes debut for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. After winning his career debut on Churchill Downs’ Nov. 26 “Stars of Tomorrow 2” program, Gun Pilot finished second to Verifying in his two-turn debut. Gun Pilot returned to beat Bourbon Bash by two lengths in an entry-level allowance at 1 mile Feb. 4 at Oaklawn.
Gun Pilot, a son of 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner, received his early lessons in south Texas, at El Primero Training Center (run by Asmussen’s parents, Keith and Marilyn), and races for his breeder, Three Chimneys Farm (Goncalo Torrealba). Three Chimneys stands Gun Runner.
“It’s extremely promising,” Asmussen said. “A very nice homebred of Three Chimneys. Went to Laredo. Came out of there and dad was very high on the horse. Won first time out at Churchill. I think we were unfortunate for him to get stuck in quarantine (equine herpesvirus) at Churchill and just stay there 30 days past time to get out of there and I thought he really needed his first run here and move forward after it. Has trained well since the allowance win and we’re going to jump off in the deep water of the Rebel.”
Asmussen is also scheduled to send out another son of Gun Runner, Red Route One, who exits a second-place finish behind unbeaten Arabian Knight in the $750,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) Jan. 28. Red Route One fell far back early in the 1 1/16-mile Southwest before rallying to finish 5 ½ lengths behind Arabian Knight in Oaklawn’s second Kentucky Derby points race.
“I thought he came out of it well,” Asmussen said. “His work back here over the racetrack was good. But obviously the way he finished up in the Southwest was encouraging.”
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Reincarnate, from the first crop of champion Good Magic, has won his last two starts, including the $100,000 Sham Stakes (G3) at 1 mile Jan. 8 at Santa Anita. Reincarnate was recently transferred from Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who has won the Rebel a record eight times, to another Southern California-based trainer, Tim Yakteen.
Horses trained by Baffert are ineligible to collect qualifying points, owing to a suspension by Churchill Downs. The suspension stems from Baffert’s Medina Spirit being disqualified from his 2021 Kentucky Derby victory because of a medication violation. Yakteen is a former Baffert assistant.
Confidence Game finished third behind the Cox-trained Instant Coffee in the $200,000 Lecomte Stakes (G3) at 1 1/16 miles Jan. 21 at Fair Grounds in his last start for trainer Keith Desormeaux. Frosted Departure won the inaugural $150,000 Renaissance Stakes for 2-year-olds at 6 furlongs Dec. 31 at Oaklawn for trainer Kenny McPeek before stretching out to finish third in the Southwest.
Bourbon Bash returns to stakes company after finishing second earlier this month behind Gun Pilot for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Bourbon Bash had made his previous five starts in stakes, including a third-place finish behind Frosted Departure and Two Eagles River in the Renaissance.
“We’ve got to get better,” Lukas said. “We’ve got to get a good trip and the horse has to improve. The whole thing has to improve. That’s going to be a little bit rougher. The hill’s getting steeper now and we’ve got to hope that the maturity is going to let him do better. We have to do better. We’d like to be on the board. If we’re on the board, I’d call that a success at this point.”
Cox, with a victory Saturday, would join Baffert, Asmussen and Lukas as the only trainers to sweep Oaklawn’s four-race series of Kentucky Derby points races.
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