Grade II Rebel Stakes Analysis, Oaklawn Park – 3/15/2014

The Grade II Rebel Stakes will be run at Oaklawn Park on Saturday, with post time set for 5:04 ET. A salty field of eight is set to go to post, and one could make a case for any number of runners in this spot. This is an important prep race for the Kentucky Derby on May 3, with the winner set to earn 50 qualifying points.

Jet Cat is a horse that has the look of an outsider in this spot. He ran a lackluster fourth in an allowance last time out, and his Beyer Speed Figures don’t put him in the same ballpark as many of these runners. Jet Cat is a toss for me.

Ride On Curlin is an intriguing runner that I’ve liked since last fall. Although he was a well beaten third in the Southwest Stakes last month here at Oaklawn, the ride he received from Calvin Borel was sub-par at best. Following the break, it appeared as though Ride On Curlin would tuck in behind the speed and sit a nice, stalking trip into the first turn. Instead, Borel was set on getting the lead and took Ride On Curlin seven wide throughout the first turn. The Southwest was run at a mile and a sixteenth – Ride On Curlin ran AT LEAST a mile and an eighth in that event. The fact that he held on for third is a credit to the horse’s heart. He’s going to be a very solid price in the Rebel – and he just might be able to get the job done in this spot.

Tapiture was the winner of the Southwest Stakes last month, and he won rather impressively. In his three year old debut, Tapiture set reasonable fractions on the front end en route to a four and a quarter length victory. Although he registered the highest Beyer Speed Figure of any horse in the Rebel field last time out, I’m not convinced he’s the horse to beat. On Saturday he’ll face some added pressure early, and I’m not sure he’ll be able to repel those advances and still hold off the horses coming from behind. I’m going to play against Tapiture in the Rebel Stakes.

Strong Mandate is another horse exiting the Southwest Stakes that had a less-than-stellar ride, this one coming from Joel Rosario. He has every right to improve off his seasonal debut, but in a game where value is key…don’t you want 12-1 or 15-1 on a horse like Ride On Curlin compared to the 9-5 or 2-1 that you’re going to receive on Strong Mandate? I know I do. Strong Mandate is a very nice horse that may just prove to be best, but I could never settle for that short a price in what appears to be a contentious field.

Hoppertunity ships into Arkansas from Southern California for trainer Bob Baffert, and he’s sure to take his fair share of money. After impressively breaking his maiden at Santa Anita, he came back to run a “blah” fourth in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds last month. It’s interesting to see jockey Mike Smith make the trip to Oaklawn and take the mount on this son of Any Given Saturday, and Baffert has a pretty stellar record when it comes to shipping horses into Hot Springs, Arkansas. If you decide to side with him, make sure you get reasonable odds.

Sheltowee’s Boy is coming off of a nice, closing score in an allowance race here last month – but he’s going to have to take a major step forward if he’s going to be competitive in this spot. I’d consider him to round out exotics due to the potentially lively pace up front, but I’ll pass on him as a win contender.

Street Strategy is an interesting runner that is coming off of a strong maiden breaking score at the end of January. It appears as though he has a running style that should be well-suited for the way this race is projected to be run, and he has every right to take a step forward. Take note of the fact that Calvin Borel jumps off Ride On Curlin to take the mount on this son of Street Sense. Throw out this horse at your own risk…

Kobe’s Back is going to be heavily bet – maybe even bet down to favoritism. His return to the races in the San Vicente at Santa Anita last month was a monster effort, but I can’t help but think this horse is destined to be a closing sprinter. There is no denying the horse has talent, but I get the feeling that longer doesn’t necessarily equate to better with this guy. Maybe he blossoms and becomes the “it” horse on the Derby trail after the Rebel, but I’m taking a stand against. I’ll toss Kobe’s Back.

I’ll be honest – the minute I found out a certain horse would be running in this race, I was afraid my judgement of the field would be rather cloudy or that I’d be biased toward this runner. After going through the race in depth, I can say I’ve looked at everything objectively…and I like the horse that I was afraid would cloud my judgement. The day he broke his maiden, I decided that Hoppertunity would be my pick to win the 140th Kentucky Derby in May. His debut in stakes company was a bit bizarre – he broke a step slow and Martin Garcia immediately took him back. He proceeded to run in the middle of the pack and improve his position late, mainly by passing tired rivals down the lane. However, upon further review, I think there was more to his stretch run than just passing tired rivals. Hoppertunity got his final 5/16ths in :31.26, which was the third fastest come home time (final fraction) in the field. Considering he was wide turning for home and continued on willingly, I think that’s a huge positive for this young, lightly raced horse. If he can get out of the gate smoothly tomorrow, I think he sits a beautiful trip just off the leaders and gets first run on the closers. I like Hoppertunity to win the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

SELECTION: 5 – Hoppertunity, Mike Smith; ML 10-1

Matt Bernier picMatt Bernier was the youngest qualifier to the National Handicapping Championship (NHC) this past year and he is one of the stars of the Esquire series Horseplayers. is pleased to offer his educational and expert analysis of major stakes races.

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