August 12, 2022

Four points to ponder: 2021 Rebel Stakes

Concert Tour, outside, collars Freedom Fighter at the wire to win the San Vicente Stakes (Benoit Photo)

The shorthand storyline for Saturday’s $1 million Rebel S. (G2) is Bob Baffert versus Brad Cox. Will Hall of Famer Baffert extend his record grip on the Oaklawn Park feature, or will Cox continue his hot hand as the newly crowned Eclipse Award-winning trainer?

But as a significant stop on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, worth points on the 50-20-10-5 scale, the Rebel has more layers of intrigue. Two notable juveniles from 2020 will try to step up off the bench, and answer lingering form questions, while a promising stakes firster could make his presence felt.

The result of the 1 1/16-mile Rebel tends to inform the track’s final Derby prep, the April 10 Arkansas Derby (G1), so Saturday’s clues are worth taking to heart.

Here are my points to ponder:

1. Caddo River’s Smarty Jones cakewalk doesn’t apply so well here.

The Cox-trained Caddo River won the Jan. 22 Smarty Jones for fun over a couple of decent rivals in Cowan and Moonlite Strike. They both encountered a spot of trouble, but not enough to account for their beaten margins, and both upheld the form by placing in their next outings. Perennial bridesmaid Cowan was a valiant runner-up in the Saudi Derby after blowing the start, and Moonlite Strike finished third in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2).

Yet Caddo River’s superiority was magnified as lone speed in the Smarty Jones, and he had a cozy time of settling into stride from the outside post 7. In the Rebel, the son of Hard Spun will endure a more challenging dynamic from his rail draw, against better opposition. Caddo River could keep finding on the front end to pass his Rebel test, but chances are he won’t be opening up while decelerating through the final half-mile, as he did in the Smarty Jones. He’ll need to produce a bigger effort under top weight of 122 pounds.

2. Concert Tour bears a superficial resemblance to two of Baffert’s Rebel winners.

Strictly from a resume perspective, Concert Tour is reminiscent of last year’s Rebel star Nadal. Both scored in their career debuts sprinting at Santa Anita roundabout mid-January, then captured the seven-furlong San Vicente (G2) before stretching out for Baffert in the Rebel. That’s also vaguely similar to Baffert’s 2011 Rebel scorer The Factor – except that he was fourth on debut, romped on Santa Anita’s Dec. 26 opening day, and then resumed with a win in the San Vicente.

But Concert Tour strikes me as a different type from either of them, and that could be a good thing for his Kentucky Derby aspirations. I’d thought that The Factor would have distance limitations. While Nadal had a more effective rebuttal to that critique, I was worried about his combination of a brawny physique and a ground-pounding action – and indeed, he didn’t make it to the Derby.

In contrast, Concert Tour has the vibe of a router who just happens to be talented enough to beat sprinters at their own game. His maiden was a lot easier than the San Vicente, where he was all-out, and drifting, to edge stablemate Freedom Fighter. The rub is whether the form amounts to anything, especially since Freedom Fighter came back as a well-beaten fourth in the Gotham (G3). Granted it was a mile, and perhaps he was regressing off a big return in the San Vicente.

Still, Concert Tour will have to tackle a far tougher frontrunner in Caddo River. He has the early speed to stay in touch, and pedigree suggests the stamina to kick on. Now we’ll see if he’s good enough to channel his sire Street Sense, who outstayed Caddo River’s sire in the 2007 Derby.

3. Keepmeinmind has a better case than Get Her Number.

Considering how the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) form hasn’t stood up over the winter, I keep wanting to downgrade the victorious Keepmeinmind. Yet that smacks of an unfair bias, for three reasons: he overcame a slow pace when going last to first; his prior placings to unbeaten champion Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) can’t be ignored; and as a son of Laoban and a Victory Gallop mare, Keepmeinmind is entitled to improve with maturity, thereby deserving credit for exceeding expectations at two. He’ll get enough pace to do himself justice here.

The case for Get Her Number, the other high-profile comebacker, is shakier. His upset in the American Pharoah (G1) could be read as an opportunistic dirt debut, particularly with fellow turfer Rombauer finishing second, and Baffert’s hit-or-miss Spielberg whiffing in third. Rombauer’s subsequent performances don’t change that narrative, since he was fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile before plundering the El Camino Real Derby on synthetic.

4. Big Lake brings pedigree and upside into his stakes debut.

Big Lake is intriguing at 12-1 for Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, although prior stakes experience is generally preferred in the Rebel. By American Pharoah, who kicked off his march to the Triple Crown here in 2015, and from the immediate family of Lakeway, the Mike Rutherford homebred is 2-for-2 since stepping up to this distance at Fair Grounds. Big Lake rallied from off a modest tempo to get up in a maiden, but parlayed a more aggressive ride to the winner’s circle in an allowance on the Feb. 13 Risen Star (G2) card. While runner-up Defeater gained plaudits for his superb finish from a poor start, Big Lake’s move to break the race open shouldn’t be overlooked. He lures Ricardo Santana Jr. from Asmussen’s more exposed stakes commodity, Super Stock.

Hozier invokes the “other Baffert” angle, and like Big Lake, he was a different horse on the stretch-out. The $625,000 Pioneerof the Nile colt showed a willing attitude to roll by stablemate Fenway in a Santa Anita maiden. But he’s still got a gap to bridge with Concert Tour who drubbed him in their mutual debut, and Baffert himself preferred to have an allowance option rather than tossing Hozier into the Rebel.