Game Winner and Improbable returned to the races in separate divisions of Saturday’s Rebel (G2) at Oaklawn Park and while both came up a little short for Bob Baffert, supporters still had reason to be encouraged by their runner-up finishes.
Those seeking clarity regarding favoritism for the 2019 Kentucky Derby came away disappointed.
Long Range Toddy and Omaha Beach denied the odds-on favorites, each picking up 37.5 points, and now appear well-situated to make a projected 20-horse Kentucky Derby field. Since the advent of the Road to the Kentucky Derby series in 2013, 32 points has been the highest cut-off point (Mo Tom in 2016).
Seventeen qualifiers have been offered this year and the only two-time winner, War of Will, will seek a third this Saturday in the $1 million TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) at Fair Grounds. The Mark Casse-trained colt heads a field of 11 and the 1 1/8-mile race serves as the first of seven major final preps awarding points on a 100-40-20-10 scale to the top four finishers.
The Kentucky Derby is six weeks from Saturday.
Rebel First Division
Long Range Toddy broke on top from his inside post and showed the way into the first turn of the 1 1/16-mile Rebel before relinquishing the advantage to Classy John. The Steve Asmussen-trained sophomore settled nicely for new rider Jon Court, easing back to race a couple of lengths off the pace along the backstretch, and patiently saved ground behind a quartet of horses on the far turn.
A Willis Horton homebred son of Take Charge Indy, Long Range Toddy angled out for clear sailing while straightening for home but remained fourth with a sixteenth of a mile remaining. The dark bay colt found his best stride in deep stretch, rallying determinedly to overhaul Improbable by a neck, and netted a 104 BRIS Late Pace number for the commendable finish. He went off as the 8-1 third choice among eight runners.
The winner took a big step forward from a BRIS Speed perspective, earning a 97 figure, and is improving at the right time. Out of an Unbridled’s Song mare, Long Range Toddy possesses the pedigree and appears built for longer distances.
Long Range Toddy received only an 89 Speed rating posting an upset win in the Remington Springboard Mile in mid-December. He did a little better when opening the year in the Smarty Jones, garnering a 92 for a neck second, and recorded a 91 for a troubled third in the February 18 Southwest (G3) at Oaklawn. It was easy to appreciate the push-button acceleration he displayed in the Rebel stretch and Long Range Toddy’s tractability is an asset.
Improbable broke from the far outside and had ample opportunity to drop behind rivals a few jumps out of the starting gate. Drayden Van Dyke held his outside positioning and that became an issue when Galilean, who missed the break, rushed forward and pushed Improbable even wider into the first turn.
The 2-5 favorite continued to take the overland path along the backstretch and launched his move while entering the far turn. The crowd roared as Improbable advanced to take a short lead into upper stretch and it momentarily appeared as if a romping win was materializing. But instead of storming into a commanding advantage, Improbable lacked an extra gear and led by only a length over tiring rivals Galilean and Extra Hope as Long Range Toddy began to offer his bid on the far outside.
Unbeaten in three juvenile starts, Improbable registered a 100 BRIS Speed rating for an impressive win in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) in mid-December. Two starts previously, he received a 99 and showed an affinity for Churchill Downs posting a dominant tally in the Street Sense. His Speed number dropped to a 97 in the Rebel and I came away a little concerned about his prospects at 1 ¼ miles this spring, but it wasn’t a bad second considering the ground loss and three-month layoff.
Improbable figures to be tighter when he returns for the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) on April 13 and how he fares on the stretch out to 1 1/8 miles will be key to evaluating his Kentucky Derby chances three weeks later.
Rebel Second Division
Omaha Beach raced prominently from the start of his stakes debut, showing the way on a short lead down the backstretch. He offered a nice turn of foot to widen the advantage on the far turn and reached the mile mark with a two-length edge, but Game Winner came charging to make it extremely tight on the wire.
Owned by Fox Hill Farms and trained by Richard Mandella, Omaha Beach dug in gamely repel the champion two-year-old male by a nose and emerged as a major Kentucky Derby contender. Mike Smith, rider of 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify, picked up the mount on the last-out maiden winner and 4-1 second choice.
By War Front, Omaha Beach had raced exclusively in Southern California. He opened his career in turf routes, recording a third and a pair of seconds, before switching to the main track with a neck second to Kentucky Derby hopeful Nolo Contesto in early January. The dark bay colt was exiting a nine-length triumph at seven furlongs over a sloppy Santa Anita track on February 2.
Omaha Beach recorded a career best 98 BRIS Speed rating Saturday and shows a nice pattern of improving numbers (94-96-98). He earned his first triple-digit Late Pace number (100) and displayed excellent resiliency against an experienced stakes competitor. And he even galloped out in front after the wire.
Omaha Beach counts 2014 champion two-year-old filly Take Charge Brandi as a half-sister and hails from the Seeking the Gold mare Charming, a daughter of multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire and 2013 Broodmare of the Year Take Charge Lady. Charming is a half-sibling to champion Will Take Charge and Grade 1-winning millionaire Take Charge Indy, the sire of Long Range Toddy.
The future appears bright for Omaha Beach and it’s good to see Mandella on the Kentucky Derby trail with a legitimate contender. Similar to fellow veteran Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who is also well-situated this year with a trio of prospects, Mandella has never recorded a top three finish in previous Kentucky Derby starts.
Unraced since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), Game Winner sustained his first setback but knocked off any rust with a good effort against a quality rival. It was an 8 ¼-length gap back to third and Game Winner registered a 102 Late Pace rating after finishing full of run.
The three-time Grade 1 winner rated in midpack and began making up ground on the far turn. Game Winner traveled wide into the stretch and rallied sharply into contention in the latter stages to just miss in the head-bobbing photo. Baffert came away pleased with his effort and the son of Candy Ride is certainly eligible to move forward next time. Game Winner will make his final Kentucky Derby prep in the $1 million Santa Anita Derby (G1) on April 6.
Other three-year-olds of Interest
Alwaysmining was exiting a couple of fast wins but had never tried two turns from 10 previous starts entering Saturday’s Private Terms at Laurel Park. The Stay Thirsty gelding made the extra ground look easy recording a 6 ¾-length tally at the about 1 1/16-mile distance, leading wire to wire beneath regular rider Daniel Centeno. Kelly Rubley trains for Runnymede Racing. Alwaysmining didn’t appear to be facing much in the seven-horse field, but he looked good notching a fifth consecutive win and received career-best BRIS Speed (99) and Late Pace (103) numbers. Connections said they will consider the April 6 Blue Grass (G2) at Keeneland but may stay at Laurel for the April 20 Federico Tesio, a “Win and You’re In” for the Preakness Stakes.
After convincing scores in the Risen Star (G2) and Lecomte (G3), War of Will can sweep the “Fair Grounds Triple” in the Louisiana Derby. There isn’t much pace in the field and the son of War Front was arguably a little headstrong last time in the Risen Star; it will be interesting to see how he settles during the early stages on the stretch out in distance. Tyler Gaffalione rides the 6-5 morning line favorite.
Spinoff rates as a dangerous contender for four-time Louisiana Derby winner Todd Pletcher. An 11-length allowance winner at Tampa Bay Downs, the Hard Spun colt appears likely to show speed with John Velazquez. Risen Star runner-up Country House has been pegged as the 9-2 second choice for Mott.
Scully’s Kentucky Derby Top 10
- OMAHA BEACH: Game Rebel win in stakes debut
- GAME WINNER: Missed by a nose in Rebel comebacker
- COUNTRY HOUSE: Makes second stakes appearance in Louisiana Derby
- WAR OF WILL: Louisiana Derby favorite has done little wrong
- LONG RANGE TODDY: Liked his improving form in Rebel
- IMPROBABLE: Came back a little short off the layoff
- CODE OF HONOR: Broke through in Fountain of Youth
- BOURBON WAR: Fountain of Youth runner-up packs late punch
- HIDDEN SCROLL: Florida Derby will be key for talented colt
- TACITUS: Rallied to win Tampa Bay Derby in stakes debut